Ahlam Abo Eid: Palestinian women can do the impossible
· Selected for Palestine's U-14 national team before she had ever featured for a club · Made her international debut at the age of 12, in an AFC youth event in Sri Lanka · A two-footed full-back, she is comfortable on either side of defence
From the balcony of her home, where she sought a moment of respite amid the grief over the death of her father, a young girl saw a group of boys playing football on the street and yelling every time a goal went in. She enjoyed watching them, but was surprised when a girl her age soon entered the fray and started mixing it with the boys. Invited to join in herself, the girl on the balcony plucked up her courage.
"I'd never seen a girl playing football in my life, let alone with a group of boys," said Ahlam Abo Eid of her first-ever football experience. "But rather than expressing disapproval, I decided to join them and try it for myself."
Ahlam quickly developed a passion for the game, which provided an outlet, galvanising her and lifting her spirits. She continued to enjoy kick-abouts with her female friends and the boys in the neighbourhood until she had a chance to set foot on a proper football pitch for the first time. The occasion was a trial to select a Palestinian U-14 national team.
"I didn't go for the trial," Ahlam explained. "I was just accompanying my friend Balqis Al Rujub. I saw many girls there. But instead of sitting there waiting for my friend to finish the trial, I took a ball to the corner of the pitch and started kicking it to kill time."
Noticing the young girl, a coach in attendance was suitably impressed and duly asked her to join his team, Dura al-Qar'. She agreed, although it is fair to say she did not really know what she was getting herself into. In fact, things almost ended before they started, with her parents initially jettisoning the idea.
"In our Palestinian society, and Arab society in general, it's seen as strange for a girl to play football," she said. "But I argued my case well. I told them that the game helps build character and broadens the mind. I had the support of my uncle, who helped me persuade the family."
A red-letter birthday After getting her first taste of the game in earnest and training in the Palestinian youth set-up, Ahlam was told that she had been selected to travel to Sri Lanka to play in an AFC event.
"That was a turning point," she said. "I was over the moon. I had to apply for a passport – that was the first official document I'd ever got my hands on. When we arrived there, I saw the impact of football on other girls."
That was just the first of many trips, with Ahlam going on to grace the UAFA Arab U-17 Women's Cup and the Asian Festival in Qatar, among others. Now more grown up and seasoned, she has been called up to the senior Palestinian national team and is gearing up for a date with history when Palestine hosts the Group C qualifiers for the 2018 AFC Women's Asian Cup.
"We know that it's difficult to compete against experienced football teams like Thailand and Chinese Taipei, but we want to show our determination and prove to everyone that Palestinian women are up to the challenge," said the starlet, describing playing on home turf as "a great morale boost".
"We want the local fans to support us regardless of the results. I hope everyone will understand the difficulties we face. Many girls have to go to great lengths to attend training sessions. When we finish training at 20:00, it takes about two hours to get home. Once there, I often continue doing my school homework until dawn. I sleep for two hours before I wake up to go to school. I hope people don't take what we are doing lightly. We need moral support to continue our journey," she added.
If Ahlam features against Thailand on 3 April, she will be playing on her 18th birthday. "I've asked to wear the No18 shirt during the match," she said with a chuckle. "It's certainly going to be a memorable game. Birthdays should be celebrated at home, but I'll be on the pitch. I hope I put in a good performance. Perhaps we'll have a small party in the camp to celebrate in the evening."
The Women's Asian Cup qualifiers will be a unique experience for Palestine. Indeed, the Palestinian girls are hoping that they mark the beginning of a brighter future as they look to do the impossible and, in the process, pave the way for a time when they have the same conditions for success as other nations.
Did you know? · Palestine are seeking to qualify for the AFC Women's Asian Cup for the first time, at the third attempt. · The qualifiers get underway on Ahlam's 18th birthday, 3 April. · Ahlam watches international football with her friends after school and training. · She admires and takes inspiration from the performances of USA captain Carli Lloyd.