Palestine will be aiming to overcome a number of problems and focus on their sporting objectives when they contest this month's AFC Challenge Cup, which gets under way in the Maldives between 19 and 30 May. The man charged with steering their bid is former Jordanian international Jamal Mahmoud, and, speaking with FIFA.com, he outlined the team's goal of securing qualification for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup despite various off-field issues.
Drawn in Group A along with the hosts, Afghanistan and Myanmar, Palestine will go into the tournament harbouring genuine ambitions, with Group B sides Laos, Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines and Turkmenistan completing the field. "There are no real differences between the teams," said Mahmoud, coach since 2011. "The more time passes, the more each side's chances even out. Every country will be playing for the title, which brings with it a spot in the Asian Cup. I've noticed that lots of the teams have prepared well. On top of that, the Philippines, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and the Maldives are all ahead of us in the World Ranking, so they are the favourites.
"Palestine tend to do well in competitive tournaments," he added. "I don't think this one will be an exception. We know the quality of our opponents, but we also know how to make the most of our own qualities, as we proved during qualifying. In Nepal, we beat Bangladesh (1-0), the Northern Mariana Islands (9-0) and got a (0-0) draw with the hosts, which meant we finished first and qualified for the Challenge Cup."
That represented an achievement in itself for Mahmoud's charges, and the coach made little secret of the problems his team have faced. "We haven't played a lot of friendly games over the last two years," he said. "You can count them on one hand. Since I was appointed coach, we've taken part in the 2011 Arab Games in Qatar, the 2012 Challenge Cup, the 2013 West Asian Championship in Kuwait, the qualifiers for the 2014 Challenge Cup a year ago and then the 2014 West Asian Championship. I hoped that competition would be a good launching pad in terms of preparing for the Challenge Cup, but unfortunately things haven't gone as planned.
"I was separated from the team for several weeks and had to stay in Amman," he continued. "I had to rely on my assistants in Palestine to train the local players. We asked for eight friendly games; we were meant to take on Pakistan twice, but they pulled out. We didn't get to play a single international match during our final training camp in Doha. Recently, I've had trouble even entering the Palestinian territories, and yet this period is crucial in terms of preparing the players tactically. We're now depending on our last two friendly games against Sri Lanka, hoping that they'll actually happen before the competition starts."
The problems do not end there either. "Like all the teams, we rely on players who are based abroad," said Mahmoud. "We should have ten for the Challenge Cup, but for the moment only four have confirmed their presence: the goalkeeper Ramzi Saleh (Egypt), Mourad Ismail (Jordan), Abdelatif Bahdari (Iraq) and Imad Khalili (Saudi Arabia). We're waiting to hear news from Omar Jaroun, Moustapha Kebir, Emad Zatara and Alex Nassar. As for the locally based players, some of our big names are injured: Ashraf Noman is recovering but will not be fully fit, while Fahed Attal and Eyad Abu Arquoub will be missing because they still haven't got over problems."
Palestine nonetheless enjoy a reputation for total commitment, and Mahmoud is sure that will serve them well again this month. "We've experienced a number of difficulties recently, but everything will be forgotten when we arrive in the Maldives. Competitive games motivate all the players, and it's the same for the Palestinians, who want to leave their mark on every tournament they play in. All the internationals are conscious of the responsibility weighing on their shoulders. Our people are expecting a lot from us, no matter the external situation.
"I have total faith in my players," Mahmoud stressed. "They always manage to meet challenges. We'll be relying on our cast-iron mental strength, as well as our good tactical preparations and our analysis of our opponents. Our problem is our lack of friendly games and thus a lack of experience. That said, if we arrive in the Maldives in good shape both physically and mentally, we'll be among the contenders for the title."
If that outlook sounds slightly circumspect, Mahmoud is no doubt mindful of how his charges fared in the previous edition two years ago. Beaten 2-0 by Korea DPR in the semi-finals, Palestine missed the chance to finish on the podium when they lost 4-3 to the Philippines in the match for third place. Eager to seal a berth in next year's Asian Cup, they will clearly be hoping for a different outcome this time around.