Palestine had a date with destiny on Sunday when they played their first-ever FIFA World Cup qualification match on home soil, taking on Afghanistan in the return leg of their AFC first round qualifier for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Playing in front of a home crowd made this a huge occasion for the hosts, and despite the 1-1 scoreline, an aggregate victory of 3-1 was enough to see them through to the second round, sparking celebrations amongst their followers.
As the Palestine players ran out on the pitch they were greeted with rapturous applause from the 9,000 fans packing the terraces, before players and supporters alike raised their voices to sing the national anthem.
Amongst those in attendance was the president of the Palestinian Football Association Colonel Jibril Al Rajoub, plus a number of prominent sporting and political figures.
The Faisal Al Husseini Stadium, where the contest took place, was officially opened on 26 October 2008 on the tenth anniversary of Palestine joining the FIFA family. That occasion was marked by a friendly between Palestine and Jordan in the presence of FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter.
The excitement yesterday was palpable, and many of the Palestine players had good reason to share in it. Tampa Bay defender Omaar Jarun was making his debut for the national side while for fellow rear-guard memeber Roberto Bishara, who plies his trade for Chilean club Palestino, this was his second appearance on Palestinian soil since joining the side in 2008.
It only took 11 minutes for the fans’ expectations to be met in spectacular fashion as 24-year-old striker Husam Wadi slammed the ball past Afghanistan goalkeeper Hamidullah Yousufzai. The goal made him the first Palestinian player to score in a FIFA World Cup qualifier in Palestine.
Speaking after the match to FIFA.com, Palestine coach Moussa Bezaz said, “The important thing for us was qualifying for the next round. We managed it, but it was a tough game. Afghanistan were excellent in defence but the luck was against us: we could have scored at least three."
"It was important that we showed we could host this match,” added Bezaz, "and we succeeded. We've opened a door for Palestinian football and sport in general. People know that we're able to host sporting events without any problems and that's going to help people get to know the whole country a little better.”
"The Afghans came over, played a match and now they're going home and they were completely safe the whole time," he continued. "Today was the first step and I hope there'll be more to come!"
"Now we go to Bangkok to play Thailand on July 23 in the next round and then we'll be back on home soil for the return match on July 28. We're looking forward to coming back here again."
Smiles all round
The coach was not the only smiling face. His evident joy was reflected in the faces of his players, delighted at the unflagging support they received from a crowd that cheered them for the full duration of yesterday’s contest.
Despite conceding Afghanistan’s second-half goal, substitute keeper Abdullah Saidawi’s spirits were high: “The game was an historic moment for Palestinian football. It captured the world’s attention: all eyes were on Palestine.”
Local football lovers will get another opportunity to see their side in action on home soil when Palestine take on Thailand in the return leg of their second round tie in the Asian qualifying tournament on 28 July.