The popular discourse surrounding the West Bank Premier League (WBPL) is that the standard has fallen off a cliff over the last couple of years. There are many indicators of this decline from the double edged sword of players moving abroad, to a controversy over unpaid wages, to the seven and nine point gaps between first and second place over the last two seasons.
These problems haven’t gone away but the most recent season treated us to an epic battle between Shehab Qombor and Rami Hamadi whose superlative individual performances made up for their teams’ shortcomings in the most competitive title race in three years.
Shabab Al-Khaleel were heavy favorites to win this league after splashing the cash to acquire the likes of Rami Hamadi, Musa Farawi, Hilal Mousa, Ahmed Maher, and Mohamed Darwish. Jabal Al-Mokaber’s title challenge? It came out of nowhere.
Qombor sets league alight
Jabal Al-Mokaber were an average side who finished fourth last season- a whopping 17 points behind Shabab Al-Khaleel. The Jerusalem based side did have an ace up their sleeve, though- Shehab Qombor’s 31 goals- the most anyone had scored over the two preceding seasons. In a league where pure goalscorers can be hard to come by Qombor was Jabal Al-Mukaber’s safeguard against relegation- a fate suffered by big sides like Ahli Al-Khaleel, Shabab Al-Amari, and Shabab Al-Dhahrieh in recent seasons.
Few thought that his goals could power the team to the title but he nearly did just that. The 24 year old smashed the previous record for most goals in a season by scoring a whopping 24 in 22 games. The previous record- 19- held jointly by Khaldoun Al-Halman (Ahli Al-Khaleel) and Abdelhamid Abuhabib (Merkaz Balata) was bolstered by both players taking penalty kicks for their team that season (Al-Halman scored three in 2017/18, Abuhabib 2 in 2014/15).
He didn’t score a single penalty kick all season. His 24 goals all came from open play.
Unfortunately, for Jabal Al-Mukaber and Shehab Qombor the glut of goals could not overcome the defensive solidity of Shabab Al-Khaleel. The Eagles scored more goals than any other WBPL title winning team in history- only the 2014/15 Merkaz Balata (57) team scored more than their 53 goals in a single league season.
In that fashion, Qombor’s record season mirrors that of the two record goalscorers that came before him. All three were the top scorer on the top scoring team in the league that came close to the title but had to settle for second place.
Hamadi makes up for Shabab’s shortcomings
If goalscorers get all the credit then little is left for the rest of the players- let alone the goalkeeper. In an undefeated title winning team it’s easy to pawn off credit to the players in front of the goalkeeper, but make no mistake, the league trophy would not be heading to Hebron if not for the national team shot stopper.
The statistics are well known now. Shabab Al-Khaleel are the owners of the only undefeated league season in WBPL history. They conceded a meager nine goals and registered a whopping 15 clean sheets in 22 games.
Some lesser known statistics around this league season is that Shabab Al-Khaleel struggled to score. 41 goals in 22 games represents a regression of eight goals from the previous season, three other WBPL teams managed more goals this league campaign, and in nine out of 22 games the team failed to score more than a single goal.
The difference between the Shabab Al-Khaleel and Jabal Al-Mukaber at the end of the season was a meager three points. To put it simply, for Shabab Al-Khaleel to win this league, Rami Hamadi had to be perfect. In any other year, Jabal Al-Mukaber’s campaign would have been enough to win the league and the reason they did not do it this year is clear- Rami Hamadi.
The one game the Shefa-‘Amr native missed due to injury necessitated an epic comeback and three goals for the team to emerge victorious. That was the only time the Hebron side conceded more than one goal in the league the entire season.
In the end, Shabab Al-Khaleel not only set a new record for points in a league season (54) they also beat Shabab Al-Dhahrieh’s record for fewest goals conceded (10 in 2014/15) by conceding a meager 9. Rami Hamadi also beat his personal best by conceding a meager SEVEN league goals in 21 games.
This isn’t the first time Hamadi has done spectacular things in goal. He was the goalkeeper of the title winning Hilal Al-Quds side that conceded only 11 goals and only let the ball past him 9 times in 21 games during that 2017/18 season. The previous season, whilst with a modest Thaqafi Tulkarem side, he conceded only 19 in 22 games- one of the best seasons for a goalkeeper not in a title winning side.
Handicapping AFC Cup hopes
In recent years, the continental competition Palestinian clubs are allowed to compete- the AFC Cup- has been something of a house of horrors. WBPL clubs had been able to hold their own as recently as 2018/19 but there has been a massive drop off in quality since. Could this year see a return to form?
Hilal Al-Quds is the other WBPL club who will be competing thanks only to Merkaz Balata’s failure to obtain an AFC license. The capital’s club started the season poorly but have recovered well in the second half of the campaign, finishing third, under the tutelage of Ammar Salman.
That said, Hilal Al-Quds’s season has been mired by the fact that they somehow managed to lose the services of one of Palestine’s best young talents- Reebal Dahamshe- to a team in the Israeli third tier. The 19 year old is another Shehab Qombor in the making and he showed flashes of that during Palestine’s Arab Cup campaign.
Without Dahamshe both Hilal Al-Quds and Shabab Al-Khaleel will be wondering where the goals will come from should the likes of Mahmoud Abu Warda or Tamer Seyam be bottled up.
Success begets success and the performances of Musab Al-Battat, Mohammed Saleh, and Yaser Hamed Mayor in Egypt should open a door for others to follow. In fact, it’s nearly an open secret that Tamer Seyam will be leaving the league at the end of the year. The quality demonstrated by the Jerusalemite in the past 12 months should be evidence enough that he belongs in a far stronger league. Look for him to join an Egyptian team over the summer.
Shehab Qombor’s goals have attracted the attention of Al-Wehdat who saw him score twice in their 4-2 victory over Jabal Al-Mukaber in the Al-Quds & Karameh tournament. The striker himself confirmed he turned down offers from Hatta (UAE), Al-Quwa Al-Jawwiya (IRQ), and Ceramica Cleopetra (EGY) to see out the season with Jabal Al-Mokaber.
There were murmurs that other stars could leave. Mahmoud Abu Warda had an offer from Al-Kuwait last season but turned it down as he didn’t want to decamp in the middle of the season. With each passing year, it seems impossible that teams from around the continent can continue to ignore the fact that Rami Hamadi is one of Asia’s best goalkeepers with the numbers at club and country to prove it.
The problems plaguing Palestinian football remain with no sign of abatement but in the face of those challenges. The league is capable of producing a handful of truly exceptional talents.
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