Palestine midfielder Imad Zaatara is one of the game’s true competitors. His personal experiences have led to him forging a strong character that has proved vital to his development and allowed him to pursue a career that has so far taken him to Sweden, Hungary, France and Iran.
Born in Sweden to Scandinavian parents, he suffered a major trauma at the age of eight when his father lost his sight and the ability to speak after suffering an unprovoked attack. Despite that harrowing experience, within five years the youngster had taken up football, a sport he proved to have a gift for.
Speaking exclusively to FIFA.com and putting his past problems to one side, Zaatara discussed his career to date, the secret of his success and the progress Palestinian football is making, progress founded on the contribution made by their overseas-based players.
Making his way
The 28-year-old began his professional career with Swedish club Essinge IK in 2001, playing lower-league football for six seasons before joining Zalaegerszegi of Hungary. Then came a return to the country of his birth with Syrianska and the long-awaited opportunity to play top-flight football.
Reflecting on the early days of his career, Zaatara said: “The standard in the Swedish championship is good but after playing for lower-league clubs I wanted to give the Hungarian championship a try. That decision brought quite a huge amount of pressure with it because the crowds are big in Hungary.
“After that I came back to Sweden to spend two years with Syrianska, where I finally played in the first division. Having been born in Sweden, I didn’t have any problems settling in at the club and making my mark in the national championship.”
I dream of playing in front of the Palestinian fans because they love their football and give the team all their support.
A big admirer of former Brazil striker Ronaldo, Zaatara then went out on loan to French outfit Nimes Olympique: “I played in the French second division and I can tell you that the standard is pretty high. Playing in France can open the doors to the German and Spanish leagues and all in all it was a very useful experience for me.”
He made an instant impression with Nimes, scoring on his debut against Le Havre. Following only six more appearances, however, he picking up an injury that ultimately forced him to return to his Swedish employers.
Undeterred by that career blip, he signed a six-month contract with Iran’s Sanat Naft, becoming the first Palestinian to play in the Iranian professional league, the prelude to another homecoming, this time to Atvidabergs, where he has remained ever since.
“The Iranian championship is competitive and there are some very talented players there,” he said, recalling his stint in the Middle East. “I was surprised by the standard, I have to say, and it was great for me to become the first Palestinian to play in Iran. I got a great welcome, a lot of support and I had no problem at all in settling down there.”
Playing for Palestine
Though born in Sweden, Zaatara had no doubt that his international career lay with Palestine, the land of his forefathers. Called up for the first time in 2004, he made his debut appearance in a 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ qualifier against Iraq in Doha.
Though that outing ended in a 4-1 defeat, the then teenager did score his side’s only goal, a landmark moment he was happy to recall: “I was 19 when I scored my first international goal and I was delighted to get it so young. I felt so proud to be representing my country of origin and my family were proud of my choice too.”
After then deciding to put his Palestine career on hold for a while, he returned to the set-up at the 2011 Pan-Arab Games, where his side finished fourth. He also formed part of the team that contested the West Asian Football Federation Championship, held in Kuwait last December and where Palestine failed to progress beyond the group stage.
As he explained to FIFA.com, Zaatara’s decision to take time out from international football cost him the chance to play in Palestine. During his sabbatical the country hosted two qualifying matches for Brazil 2014 in July 2011, a few months before he returned to the side.
Lamenting that fact, he said: “I dream of playing in front of the Palestinian fans because they love their football and give the team all their support. Playing there is an amazing thing and I hope my dream will come true at some point.”
Zaatara is just one of the foreign-born members of the Palestine line-up, and as he explained, relations between them and the local players could not be better: “Professionalism is new to Palestine and it’s only helped to increase the level of understanding between those of us who play abroad and the local guys, which is also helping the team to progress as a whole.
Assessing Palestine’s chances of one day giving as good as they get in major competitions, he added: “I hope we can take the national team to new heights, that we can reach the big tournaments and make our presence felt. Before, our only aim was to take part. Now, though, we’re after some good results.”