Open Letter: 2019 is not 2015


For the second consecutive time, Palestine will take part at the AFC Asian Cup but the mood amongst its most hardcore supporters has been negative, defeatist, and incredibly fatalistic.

That mood is almost solely attributable to the the Palestinian Football Association's decision to terminate Abdel Nasser Barakat's contract. The decision to do so caused mass hysteria and while the PFA succumbed to pressure by firing  Julio Cesar Baldivieso after two games it has done nothing to bring the fans back onside. 

With Baldivieso out of the picture, many expected Abdel Nasser Barakat to return. Instead, the PFA has decided to retain Barakat in his role of national team director and reinstate the old staff with long time assistant Noureddine Ould Ali take the reins of the national team. 

Is the situation ideal? No. Does it guarantee failure in six months time? Of course not. 

Leave the past in the past 


Palestine were in a similar situation in the lead up to the 2015 AFC Asian Cup but that does not mean history is doomed to repeat itself. 

Four years ago, Palestine achieved a miracle in qualifying for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup. The national team was on life support, there was very little interest from the general public and even less interest from the PFA. 

Eleven days in May 2014 changed the trajectory of the national team because it convinced the PFA that the team was worth supporting. The manager at the time was working against his employers who had been late in paying him and were salivating at the prospect of firing him. One source close to the national team at the time told Football Palestine that General Secretary of the FA Abdul Majid Hijeh referred to the national team as "The team of seven socks" an Arabic colloquialism to refer to their amateurishness.

Instead of failure, Jamal Mahmoud delivered qualification to the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, a miracle in every sense of the word.  

Accepting Jamal Mahmoud's resignation three months later was a massive mistake, but one the PFA was eager to solicit and accept.

The mistake was compounded by the hiring of Ahmed El-Hassan an administrator with sparse coaching experience.

That said, even if Palestine had retained Jamal Mahmoud services, Palestine's fate was sealed before a ball was kicked. The side might not have lost by four goal margins in this alternate reality but they most definitely would have still lost to all three games because the opposition were better in every aspect. 

Savor the moment

If you are experiencing the national team now, know that you are living through a golden age for Palestinian football. When the squad for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup is announced, there will be some good players left out of the squad. 

When this site was launched 10 years ago, the national team were in a rut. The FA had lost contact with players playing abroad and a strong generation of local players- most notably Ziyad Al-Kord and Seab Jendeya- had reached their apex. 

It all came crashing down in a 4-0 World Cup qualifying loss to Singapore- Palestine's lone qualifier between 2004 and 2011. It was evident for all to see that Palestine was a minnow, happy to show up and fight for morale boosting victories in the shape of a draw or scoring a goal. 

Any fan that watched the national team between April 3rd, 2006 and March 21, 2011 lived through 27 games without a win. Over half those games (14) ended in defeat and the national team scored a meager NINE goals. Palestine's hopes of qualifying for the 2011 Asian Cup came crashing down because they couldn't qualify for the 2010 AFC Challenge Cup- failing to beat Nepal (0-0) and Kyrgyzstan (1-1). 

Palestine is a world away from that form having won 11 times, drawn eight, and lost six since the last Asian Cup. Over the 23 games, Al-Fida'i racked up a whopping 56 goals which amounts to 28% of all goals scored since 1998. 

The national team has played well- it's closing in on being ranked in the top 100 of the FIFA rankings for nearly a year. These are things that should be celebrated. Yes, the team has not won any of its friendlies but by fielding more than just the usual faces it is ascertaining which players are up to the task. 

Give Ould Ali a chance 

Palestine's coaching situation is less than ideal and most observers would agree that terminating Barakat was a mistake. However, no amount of pressure will bring him back as national team manager. In all fairness, why would Barakat even want to come back after being discarded so unceremoniously?

Moreover, the man himself accepted a position upstairs- tacitly accepting his removal from the post. 

The damage cannot be undone and fans have to move on. Noureddine Ould Ali is not a sexy appointment but he is a manager that earned his stripes, first as part of Moussa Bezzaz's staff, then as an assistant to Abdel Nasser Barakat. The Algerian knows the players really well and that will be crucial with so little time ahead of the Asian Cup.

It makes no sense to attack Ould Ali when he also played a large role in Palestine's success as a part of Barakat's staff. 

The Algerian has also shown he can put a team together that can compete. That 0-0 draw vs Iraq in Iraq is a result Palestine rarely achieves. It was the first clean sheet Palestine recorded against the Lions of Mesopotamia and only the third time in 13 tries they avoided defeat.

Zlatko Dalic lead Croatia to a World Cup final with less than eight months' lead time and Akira Nishino led Japan past the group stage with just 84 days in the role.

Yes, a steady hand that has been at the helm for at least three years is ideal- but it is not a guarantee of success. With Ould Ali at the helm the fundamental structure of the team that has done so well over the past three years will remain.

Ould Ali's task now is to determine Palestine's best 23 players. It is not about results. We have learned a lot about the players over the summer. Let's recap some of the things that have happened:

  • Islam Batran was given his first significant run of games and has done really well. 
  • Oday Dabbagh is not the finished product and we saw both the good and the bad in the games he featured in. 
  • We now know that Mohammed Basim is more capable of playing at international level than Mohammed Yameen or Odai Kharoub. 
  • Pablo Tamburrini came back and showed his effectiveness as a deep lying playmaker
  • Tamer Salah captained the side against Kuwait and Qatar and did not impress- falling behind Mohammed Saleh in the pecking order and perhaps playing himself out of consideration. 
  • Jaka Ihbeisheh was recalled and showed that his value through his versatility as a right back. His understanding of the game helped cover our defensive deficiencies.
  • Toufic Ali was given a run of games and proved that he does not merit consideration as a #2, let alone a #1 goalkeeper. 

Experimentation is necessary; it allows you test and discover players that are capable of matching the best the continent has to offer.

The FA is the problem

"Our FA is run by crooks who are only interested in making money." 

This is a statement that has been uttered by nearly every football fan and it is applicable to some of the greatest national teams in the World. Croatia, Ghana, Spain, USA, Argentina, Brazil, Italy.... the list goes on. 

Corruption and conflict of interest is endemic in football. FIFA has done little to address these problems and supporters will most likely have to deal with organizational ineptitude as outsiders. 

That said, it should not prevent fans from supporting the players who often get little support from the FA. Support for the team does not have to translate into support for the administration in charge of running the sport in the country.

Criticism of the FA has died down over the last month with some of its most ardent critics choosing to show support in light of Jibril Rajoub's suspension from FIFA. It speaks volumes that not one person mentioned the obvious: Rajoub brought this on himself by saying yet another stupid thing in public. (it's not the first time)

The players and coaching staff are doing a good job in dire circumstances. The FA has done nothing (aside from assuring continuous league play) to support football and footballers in this country. Instead of directing rage at the people responsible, sections of fans and the media have been directing it at a manager who has been at the helm for four months. 

These players are GOOD! 

This is the number one reason why Palestine fans should be excited about this team. For context, let's look at the squad from 2015: 



This squad was so horribly put together. No replacements were called in for the injured Alexis Norambuena and the unavailable Haitham Dheeb. As a result, Palestine were left with 18 players to choose from, mostly because the staff at the time didn't feel like anybody else could help- a huge misconception. 

There were four available right backs, though! The midfield featured Hesham Salhe, who needed to have his knee scoped just days before the tournament. Despite his injury, he was the best central player in the team during the tournament. 

To add insult to injury, Raed Fares and Murad Ismail were caught smoking in the dressing room and fined by the AFC. 

Even national team stalwarts had bad games. Ramzi Saleh was not his imperious self, Abdelatif Bahdari was running around in defence trying to put out fires, and Khader Yousef seemingly forgot how to play football. Even Ashraf Nu'man, who had been so lethal in the lead up, failed to score a 1-on-1 in the Iraq game.

Fast forward three years and the squad has been completely overhauled. Nine players have not played for the national team since 2015.

In 2019, every player over the age of 30- with the exception of Haitham Dheeb and Abdelatif Bahdari- will be fighting to make the squad. 

The younger players in the 2015 squad (Hamadi, Jaber, Al-Battat, Eid) have improved and they aren't the only quality players in the side. Let's look at the players playing abroad: 



That's 17 players- 12 of whom are playing in the top tier in Jordan, Chile, Vietnam, Egypt, Morocco, Sweden, Malta, and Albania. Players produced by the Palestinian system are also moving abroad and contributing to the number of professional players in the side. 

Three have moved in this past transfer window and more could follow. Outside of established powers Korea Republic, Japan, Australia, and Iran there is not a single national team in Asia with this type of player pool. This is the type of pool that can allow the national team to mask the deficiencies of the local league.

Four years ago, Palestine had no reliable goal scorers. It was so bad, Jamal Mahmoud had to rejig his system and play Ashraf Nu'man as a striker. In 2019, Palestine will be able to count on Saleh Chihadeh (20 goals in Switzerland), Mahmoud Wadi (10 goals in 17 games in Jordan), Yashir Pinto (Five goals in eight games for the national team), and Matías Jadue (scorer of 7 goals in his first five V. League games).

Things are so different now that is it borderline ridiculous to bring up 2015. 

It's a tournament- ANYTHING can happen

This is an expanded 24-team tournament and if Euro 2016 has taught us anything, all Palestine needs to do is not be horrible to qualify for the knockout stage- a solitary win should do it. Yes, Palestine is in a tough group but their games against Syria and Jordan should be close affairs.

It's not like the opposition are lighting it up at the moment, either. Syria have not won a game under Bernd Stange, Jordan have sacked Jamal Abu Abed, and even Australia have yet to play a game under Graham Arnold.

If you claim to be a fan just lend your support and enjoy watch Palestine play in Asia's continental showpiece.