Palestine: Football, the peace ambassador
Courtesy of an 8-0 thrashing of Taiwan and a 1-1 draw against Iraq, Palestine are the unlikely leaders of Group 2 in Asian qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany. Their achievement is all the more impressive given the fact that do not play any fixtures at home. Palestinian "home games" are played in Doha, Qatar, while the team's training camp is set up in the Egyptian town of Ismailia, some 120 kilometres north of Cairo.
The Palestine national team is coached by Austrian Alfred Riedl. "Do your best with what is there," was his mandate upon being appointed at the beginning of January 2004. And judging by recent results, Palestinian supporters all around the world can be more than happy with his performance. In addition to his sporting responsibilities, the Austrian has to contend with some quite different problems in his role as national coach. FIFAworldcup.com spoke with the 54-year-old about the recent success, his day-to-day work and his somewhat unconventional selection methods.
Congratrulations on the excellent start to your FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, Herr Riedl. How do you feel about leading Group 2?
Well the 8-0 win against Taiwan was nothing to be too proud of. We beat a weakened Taiwanese team, and we were lucky in the 1-1 draw against Iraq because the Iraqis had a few good chances to win the game. But you have to earn your own luck as the saying goes, and my team did that. I believe we deserved the draw. We face another strong opponent in our next game against Uzbekistan on 9 June.
Has your success surprised you?
It was no great surprise to me, because I knew about the team before I took over. You also have to consider that we were without one of our best players. Pablo Abdullah, from Chile, plays right midfield for us, but he pulled a muscle in training before the last friendly against Syria and could not play.
Who has particularly impressed you?
At 22, Mohammed Mansour has impressed me. He is a striker and was playing for the first time. He did his job very well. In fact, I didn't believe he was capable of playing the way he did.
How do you rate your next opponents?
I watched Uzbekistan's game against Iraq on video and they played very well. Iraq had the more experienced team, but that doesn't mean anything. When you consider that the Uzbek's only' beat Taiwan 1-0, it puts our result against Taiwan into perspective.
Where do you see Palestine in Group 2?
Overall, I see us as the third strongest team in the group. Iraq are definitely favourites, followed by Uzbekistan and then ourselves.
How exactly did you end up in Palestine?
I was coaching Vietnam at the time and Mohammed Hamida, an official who was looking for a coach for Palestine, knew that I had only signed a 6-month contract. After a match, he asked me whether I could make my return flight via Dubai. I agreed and we met in Dubai for discussions. I have to say, I was very taken by the idea from the start. I've been working in Arab countries for a long time now and I know the scene, but I had never been to Palestine.
Who finances the whole project? Who are your contacts?
Fifteen business people from Dubai have teamed up to finance Project Palestine. Tayseer Barakat is heading the operation. He acted alone initially, before persuading 15 business people to join him.
How would you describe your day-to-day work?
I was employed as a technical director and head coach. In principle, I work like a club manager, with eleven training sessions per week. We also have regular friendlies. You can't compare this work with a normal' coaching job though, as there are so many unexpected situations to contend with. I am not only a coach, but also like a father' or a pastor'. It has been known for a family member, friend or acquaintance of a player to be shot dead in Palestine.
The Gaza Strip and West Bank are crisis areas. Where do you train?
We are based in Ismailia in Egypt, around 120 kilometres north of Cairo. We train there with the players at hand, normally 15 to 20 of them. The players do not play in a championship and after World Cup qualifiers they return home to their families. For the whole month of April, for example, they will be at home. The players from Gaza train with the assistant coach. The players from the West Bank have been given a training programme.
A few weeks ago, you held a trial near Köln. You had placed an advertisement in a German football magazine seeking players for Palestine's national team. That was a very unusual method. Could you tell us a little about it.
First of all, I should point out that there are around three million people in Gaza and West Bank, but more than five million Palestinians worldwide. We want to find the most talented footballers from among them, and that is a difficult task .
That is why we placed the advert in "Kicker". We held the trial at the Sportschule Hennef. Some 21 players from Scandinavia and Germany came to Köln. We took one player from Sweden, who might be useful to us, into the full squad. Most of the others weren't even lower league standard, so that is obviously of no use to us. However, we are still looking around the world to strengthen our national team.
Are you planning any more recruitment overseas?
Yes. We have a club in South America, FC Palestino in Chile. Their coach supports us in our work and provides us with players from South America. Then there is a player at Fulham FC in England, Facundo Sava, who we would really like to have in the national team. Another player is due to come to us from the United Arab Emirates. There are still a couple of other possibile ways of strengthening our ranks in the short term. The "Palestine National Team" project is planned for the longer term and will last for years.
How is your understanding with the players?
Without good English it would be impossible, and I can also give most instructions in Arabic. My assistant coach is Hungarian and also speaks Arabic. The three other coaches speak English and Arabic. I only address the players by their first names, which avoids any confusion.
How much of a problem is it not being able to play any home games?
We play our home games in Doha, Qatar. It is certainly very unusual and a disadvantage for us that we can't play any real home games. We have played twice on neutral grounds so far, where the stronger team usually prevails. The weaker team is far more dependent on support from fans. If you take that into account, it makes our success all the more impressive.
What are expectations like?
Everybody is very pleased with results so far and we have received a lot of praise. The business people didn't have any big expectations. They only said: "Do your best with what is there". We want to show the world that Palestine is not just about war, terror and oppression, but that it wants peace. Football is a very effective way of conveying that in public.