It started off with a bang. A 2-0 upset win over Uzbekistan– the side widely regarded as the fifth best Asian side over the last decade and a half. It ended with a 4-0 demolition of Singapore. What happened in the middle, left Palestine relying on a slew of other results to keep their dreams of a first ever World Cup Finals qualification hopes alive.
Al-Fidai’i were condemned to elimination not due to the strength of other teams in Group D but rather because the PFA could not act to help Palestine’s players achieve their full potential. That famous 2-0 win in Al-Ram back in September proved to be a false dawn. One that was created mostly due to Uzbekistan’s Hector Cupér’s intransigent tactics. On that day, Palestine made history despite the forces holding them back and it was a sign of the possible.
Palestine failed to qualify for the Third Round of 2018 World Cup qualifying because they could not take enough points off of the top two seeds in the group- Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Their performance against Malaysia and Timor Leste netted the full 12 points and 20 goals in their favor. So the formula for Palestine this time around was simple. Get 12 points off of Yemen and Singapore and improve on the performance against the big guns in the group- turning two points into four.
Palestine did just that when they drew Saudi Arabia 0-0 at home. The problem was that they inexplicably lost to Singapore the month before and repeated the feat by losing to Yemen the month after. At the half way point of qualifying Palestine had four points from the group favorites and ZERO from teams ranked roughly 50 spots below them.
The PFA could have avoided this mess. If Palestine’s most recent performance against Singapore proved anything it was that Noureddine Ould Ali was the source of a lot of the problems. Makram Dabboub a member of his own staff stepped into the void after he was finally fired and the performance produced was about as different as night and day from what Ould Ali’s teams produced.
The PFA could- and should- have fired Ould Ali at various points over the last two years. The performances in the friendlies from April 2018 to October 2018 left a lot to be desired yet, he was retained.
Palestine failed to score a goal or win a game at the Asian Cup Finals, yet he was retained. Ould Ali lost to Singapore and then suffered an embarrassing meltdown in the press conference and still he was retained.
When he lost to Yemen and Uzbekistan leaving Palestine on life support in the group, he stayed on.
Football was shut down for a year- a perfect time to make a low profile change but the PFA persisted.
Ould Ali’s tenure spanned a whopping 33 official games (and unofficial friendlies against Afghanistan and Pakistan). Only Jamal Mahmoud was in charge for a longer period of time and coached more teams. The average tenure of the 22 men who have coached Palestine’s national team is a mere 7.5.
In that time he managed to set a record for successive qualifying defeats in a row (3), successive qualifying matches without a win (5), and successive qualifying matches without a goal (4). It Palestine’s largest ever World Cup qualifying loss to finally bring the nightmare to an end.
Where do Palestine go from here?
The beautiful thing about the beautiful game is that the next match is always just around the corner. Palestine cannot qualify for Qatar 2022 but they can take immediate steps to qualify for a fantastic tournament- the FIFA Arab Cup in November/December 2021, the Asian Cup in 2023, and lay the groundwork for the 2026 World Cup which will feature 48 teams- eight or nine of which will hail from Asia.
The work starts with Palestine’s match next week against Yemen (June 15th, 9 PM) a win there will guarantee Palestine third place in the group and allow it to avoid the Asian Cup qualifying playoff- which whittles the eight fifth place teams and the four worst 4th place teams to eight teams. Winning that match will also further strengthen Palestine’s FIFA ranking placing it in Pot 1 for the forthcoming draw.
Palestine also have an Arab Cup playoff against Comoros in Qatar on June 24th to look forward to. The winner of that match will get to lock horns against Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and the winner of Jordan/South Sudan at the Arab Cup Finals.
Due to the year long stoppage in international Asian football due to the coronavirus pandemic, Palestine will not have an extended break before competing in another qualifier. The Asian Cup qualifying group stage is set to begin in November. Palestine’s focus for the next two years should be winning as much as possible in order to move up the rankings- falling to 17th best in Asia landed them in Pot 3 for the World Cup draw. A placement in Pot 2 would go a long way in easing the path to qualifying for the 2026 World Cup.
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