AFC Asian Cup holders Japan finally took the field on Monday, easing to a 4-0 victory over debutants Palestine in what was arguably the most one-sided match during the first round of group-stage matches. However, for Palestine and their buoyant fans, simply taking the field was a cause for celebration.
The troubled west Asian territory, which only became affiliated to FIFA in 1998, enjoyed its finest footballing hour by debuting among the continent’s elite at the 16-nation Asian Cup in Australia. And a sizeable contingent of Palestinian diaspora complemented those donning the colours of Samurai Blue, making for a rare spectacle in Newcastle, a city with an unhurried beachside ambience.
Unsurprisingly Palestine were rarely in the hunt against the four-time continental kings as the likes of Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki weaved intricate attacking combinations. Palestine were 4-0 down soon after the half-time break, before then being reduced to ten men. It says much for the Palestinian resilience that they continue to defy Japan against the odds.
Palestinian pride, however, had been on display before, during, and - despite the lop-sided scoreline - after the match. “We are really happy, and even before the game we were really happy,” Palestine midfielder Mahmoud Dhadha told FIFA.com while the jaunty background sounds of an Arabic flute, played by an enthusiastic staff member, added to the post-match air of festivity.
“We knew that four million from all over Palestine were watching our game. And there were many people here supporting us. We want to show everybody that we are not just happy to be here. We want to raise Palestine. We want to show that we are not just bombs and war and this kind of thing. We want to show we are good in anything (we do), including sport.”
“I knew that we would have a lot of support, but I didn’t expect so much. I’m really happy and I hope that we can make them proud in the next two games.”
Dhadha, who plays his club football for third tier Swedish club Nyakopings, is just one of six among the 23-strong squad who is based outside Palestine. He says the side will be ready for an improved showing now that first game nerves, and the considerable challenge offered by Japan, is behind them.
“Now we want to do more, and show the whole world that we are one team,” he said. Dhadha also secured a personal memento from the evening swapping jerseys with Samurai Blue and AC Milan star forward Honda who he described as a “gentleman”.
And the Palestine No16 believes Palestine opened their maiden Asian Cup campaign against the best credentialed team in the tournament. “We played the best team in the tournament,” Dhadha said. “I know they (Japan) will win the tournament, so we have to raise our heads and focus on the next two games.”
Despite the one-sided contest, and the significant Japanese support, the biggest roar of the night came when Palestine’s hulking central defender Abdallatif Albahdari powered a header a metre wide in a rare sight of Eiji Kawashima’s goal.
“We have learnt a lot from playing this match against such a big team,” coach Ahmed Al Hassan told FIFA.com ahead of further group matches against Jordan and 2007 champions Iraq. Al Hassan only assumed the reins in September after the team qualified for the tournament by virtue of their victory in the AFC Challenge Cup in May.
Al Hassan said the match was an emotion-charged affair for his charges, heightened by the support for his team. “Our pride cannot be described,” he said. “The most important part was seeing the Palestine flag and hearing the national anthem in Australia. We wanted to produce a good performance to show everyone that Palestine, with all the trouble we have at home, can play football. We will show that in the next two matches. Our emotions have been touched to see Palestinian people from across the world come together to support Palestine.”