The fact that Palestine are even here at this tournament is incredible, given the political climate back home.
Accordingly, the nature of life in Palestine has an enormous impact on the national side. Travelling restrictions on the West Bank and Gaza Strip make it difficult for players to leave for training camps, friendlies and even major tournaments like this one. Many of the players are drawn from various Palestinian diasporas in other countries like China, the Middle East and the US, while several also had visa and passport issues.
In fact, the squad announcement was more memorable for the amount of players that missed out because of logistical (rather than football) reasons than for the players that were actually selected.
The situation was summed up rather sadly by the fact that coach Jamal Mahmoud, who lead them to the gold medal at the AFC Challenge Cup that ensured Palestine’s qualification for this Asian Cup, had to step down from his position because of ‘personal issues’. His house had been blown up, and rebuilding it for his family was the obvious, sobering reality.
His replacement, Ahmed Al-Hassan, highlights the grim context. “As a team we face many difficulties that other teams don’t,” says Al-Hassan, who was only appointed late last year. “We are under occupation [meaning] travelling between cities in the West Bank is very difficult with delays at checkpoints. Sometimes we cancel training because players can’t come to training due to the harassment of the occupier.”
Palestine are true underdogs, which has made them the neutral’s favourites.
Tactically, though, it seems they will be quite dull. Understandably, with such little, disjointed preparation time, Al-Hassan has focused on defence. This is an area Palestine were already quite strong in, given that they didn’t concede in five games at the AFC Challenge Cup.
In recent friendlies against Uzbekistan and China, Palestine defended very deep – the wide players tracking the opposition full-backs deep, and the back four packed the penalty box and basically invited the opposition to try and get through to the goal. Although they did have more of the ball in more even games against the likes of Afghanistan and the Maldives, this defensive approach was still obvious.
If Palestine do defy all the odds and snatch a point, it’ll be through a battling, courageous defensive display.
Fortunately, they do have strong defenders. Goalkeeper Ramzi Saleh is captain and a mainstay of the side. At centre-back, Abdelatif Bahdari is a strong, commanding defender who is excellent in the air. His partnership with Haitam Dheeb was particularly impressive in the Challenge Cup final against Philippines. Centre-back is actually an area of significant depth for Palestine, but the likes of Omar Jarun and Javier Cohene have missed out because of passport issues. Edit: it appears Dheeb, too, may miss out because of issues with being released.
At full-back, Alexis Norambuena, Chilean-born and currently playing in the Polish league, can play either the right or left. If he plays right-back, it’s an opportunity for the impressive Abdullah Jaber to continue at left-back, where he’s played in recent friendlies. However, if Al-Hassan choses to play Normanbuena on the left, it might be to include the experienced Raed Fares at right-back.
Meanwhile, in midfield, the combination of Murad Ismail and Khamed Yousef work tremendously hard and cover lots of ground. In the three friendlies under Al-Hassan, however, Yousef has been dropped for Hexham Salke, another physical, combative midfielder. It’s also entirely possible that Al-Hassan goes ultra-defensive, packs his midfield with all three and switches to a 4-5-1.
However, that would require moving Abdelhmid Abuhabib out wide, away from the #10 position from where he plays best. Tucked just in behind a lone striker, Abuhabib is capable of incisive forward passes, and is one of the few players in this team capable of providing genuine creativity.
The other is Ashraf Nu’man, or ‘Palestine’s Cristiano Ronaldo’. Nu’man himself admits he models himself on the Portuguese winger, and will probably start in a similar position – wide on the left, but with a freedom to cut inside and drive on goal. Nu’man is an excellent dribbler with a penchant for scoring spectacular goals, and with thirteen in forty appearances, he’s the country all-time leading goalscorer. He’s also dangerous in dead ball situations – his free-kick was the winning goal against the Philippines in the AFC Challenge Cup final.
Nu’man can also play upfront, but it seems more likely Mahmoud Eid will play there. Eid has only emerged in the last few months but judging by a friendly against China, is capable of holding the ball up and occupying defenders. Those qualities might be important in games when Palestine have very little possession.
Finally, on the right-hand side, it seems like a simple selection battle between Ismail Amour and Jaka Ihbeisheh. The excellent Football Palestine blog suggests the latter might get the nod as he works harder defensively. Whereas Nu’man is capable of carrying the ball upfield from the left, this right-hand side is much weaker, with Palestine often resorting to lofted crosses from deep positions from this side.
Sadly, Palestine are much weaker in attack without the likes of Matias Jadue – who plays for Universidad de Chile, one of the higher profile sides in South America – Hilal Musa, and Imad Khalili, all of whom could have contributed something different going forward.
Ultimately, though, it feels like they’ll be reliant on their defensive strengths, and the hope they can nick a goal either on the break, or through a rare counter-attack. Tactically and contextually, the odds are against Palestine, but their story is incredible all the same.