Palestine lose historic home qualifier
© AFP

The Palestinian national football team came up short in its first international qualifier played on home turf as they lost on penalties to Thailand in a 2012 Olympic qualifier.

When the match kicked off, thousands of excited Palestinian fans roared their encouragement to their national team. "This is an historic day," Palestine Football Association Chief Jibril Rajoub told reporters at the Faisal Husseini stadium in Al-Ram near Jerusalem. "For the first time in history, the Palestinians will play under the Palestinian flag on their own ground which will contribute to efforts towards our independence and freedom..."

The first leg, which was played in Bangkok on 23 February, resulted in a 1-0 win for Thailand over Palestine, so the Palestinians had to win by more than two goals to move into the next round. 

Despite a stunning volley by Al Hamid Abuu Habib in the 45th minute which levelled the tie on aggregate they ended up losing 6-5 on penalties after extra-time. However, to many of far greater importance was the historic significance of the event. "The whole world will see today, through means of sport, Palestine winning a great victory," Rajoub said.

The whole world will see today, through means of sport, Palestine winning a great victory.
Jibril Rajoub, Palestine Football Association Chief

Mohamed bin Hammam, head of the Asian Football Confederation, said the fact the international qualifier was being played at home was a "very important" event. "Our aim is to give Palestinian youths the opportunity to see their home team play on their own ground," Hammam said.

The Palestinian national team has been affiliated to FIFA since 1998 but it took a decade before it got its own home stadium which lived up to the professional standards set by world football's governing body.

Until now, all official qualifying matches have been played abroad, usually in Jordan or Kuwait, because of the precarious security situation as well as the lack of adequate infrastructure at home. Since the upgraded Faisal Husseini stadium reopened in 2008, there have been a number of international matches, but all of them have been friendlies.

For the Palestinians, today's match had a deep political significance, not only is it a key step in their efforts to build the institutions of a state, but it will also show they are able to host competitive international matches. "I hope that all Arab and Muslim teams will come here to play matches against Palestine at their own home ground," said AFC's Bin Hammam. "Sports must be a bridge between people and a way to reach peace in this region."