So, Palestine isn't at the Asian Cup, but I think we can learn some valuable lessons about where we stand on the continental stage. For our readers in Europe, this tournament is available on Eurosport2, for North American readers... you'll have to make due with a grainy stream.
This is the first Asian Cup to feature the winners of the Asian Challenge Cup. The two teams that punched their ticket to Qatar vis-a-vis that tournament are India and Korea DPR. Both teams probably did just enough during this tournament to ensure that the AFC doesn't reconsider that move. There are also many opponents in this tournament that followers of Palestinian football will be familiar with. Most notably, Iraq and Jordan. Here's our take on the tournament thus far:
India: Perhaps the only true developing association at the tournament, India met expectations they leave Qatar without a single point having conceded 13 goals in three games. The Bhangra Boys did show some valiant play and managed to score three goals. Their play was positive but their defending was shambolic evidence of a local league that has only been around for four years. Watching India, you can't help but think how Palestine would fare in this tournament. I have to say, that with a proper training camp and some pre-tournament friendlies, Palestine would be a competent team at this tournament. Whether or not they would manage a point in a group featuring Korea Republic, Australia, and Bahrain is questionable. But a defence featuring Bahdari, Bishara, and Abusidu would keep things competitive.
Korea DPR: This is not the same team that qualified for the World Cup. They still defend superbly but they lack the counterattacking bite of previous squads. The problem with this team is that they have no plan B. They went down to early Iraq and showed very little intent to attack the Iraqis. I still think this is the team to beat in the Challenge Cup, but their formula for winning isn't exactly groundbreaking.
Iraq: For whatever reason, Palestine and Iraq are always drawn in the same group. Its like the two oppressed peoples who cannot play home games are kindred spirits, joined at the hip. The last time Palestine faced Iraq there were stretches were Palestine played competently at times with a weakened squad. They lost 3-0 but really gifted Iraq two of their goals. Without Bahdari and Bishara anchoring the defence Palestine and without the attacking talents of Samara, Shatrit, Zatara, and an injured El-Amour it was never going to be close.
Iraq may not be as good as they were four years ago. But they were good enough to get out of a difficult group that included Iran, Korea DPR, and the UAE. No matter what happens in their quarterfinal matchup with Australia it is safe to say that Iraq is still one of the best in Asia. If I were to rank Asian sides I'd place them right behind Korea Republic, Japan, Australia, and Iran.
Jordan: What to say about our overachieving neighbors? With the excpetion of Odai Al-Saify none of the players in this squad plies their trade in Europe, 18 out of the 23 play in Jordan. I think Jordan has more depth than Palestine, but if you want to talk about talent amongst the best 15 players... it's Palestine hands down. Think of it this way: Kehskesh, Attal, and Bahdari all play for the best team in Jordan and Bahdari is without a doubt the best defender in the league. Just think about the amount of players we have that could play for Wehdat: Ramzi Saleh, Shareef Adnan, Omar Jarun, Roberto Bishara, Mohammed Samara, Imad Zatara, Ismail Amour, and Suleiman Obeid could easily claim a place in that squad.
So what makes them better than us? Well, they can host home games and we can't. Jordan had 1 point halfway through qualifying, a home draw against Thailand. In the second half, Jordan bagged 7 points out of a possible 9, with two home wins. Quite simply, this team is an entirely different creature away from home. If Jordan couldn't host games they would be watching this tournament on television. They also rode their luck during this tournament. An own goal against Japan gave them a point, a goalkeeping error against a dysfunctional Saudi side gave them a win, a goalkeeping error AND an own goal gave them a win against a superior Syrian side. Jordan aren't a positive footballing side, they aren't better on the ball than we are, and quite frankly we can put together a team far more capable of creating scoring chances.
Palestine are not that far off. That is what this tournament shows us, we probably won't beat the big boys anytime soon but we can hold our own against most sides in this tournament. We drew UAE in October of '09 and drew Jordan in Al-Ram the last time we met. Our Olympic team has been just as good, if not better than their Jordanian counterparts. What's holding us back are our circumstances we can't host qualifying games and it is very difficult for us to put together a first choice squad and a proper training camp. Despite all this, I feel confident in our chance of getting to this tournament through the Challenge Cup. I guess we'll know more about where we stand in a couple of months time.