When Palestine made their AFC Asian Cup debut at Australia 2015, few observers expected them to make much of an impact, viewing the very fact that they had qualified for the tournament as an historic achievement. The Knights’ failure to advance past the group stage did not therefore come as a surprise, especially when the quality of their opponents – Japan, Iraq and Jordan – is taken into account.
Palestinian fans, however, were particularly disappointed by the lack of attacking prowess their team exhibited in Australia, as they managed to find the net just once, which is in stark contrast to their impressive scoring performances at the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup. Recently, the Palestinian faithful has harboured concerns that this offensive sterility would persist into the Asian qualifying campaign for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, but the players allayed those fears by scoring eight goals in their first two matches.
Despite an initial 3-2 defeat at the hands of Saudi Arabia, the quick-improving side bounced back to find the net six times in their follow-up victory over Malaysia, four of which were scored by the exciting pair of Sameh Maraaba and Tamer Seyam. With Palestine’s first home qualifier fast approaching, these two rising stars spoke exclusively to *FIFA.com *at the completion of their training camp in Germany.
Surging from midfield
The aforementioned goal glut would normally involve a major contribution from a team’s forwards, but Palestine’s goalscorers have emerged from different areas, particularly from the middle of the park, with seven of the eight scored by midfielders.
Maraaba and Seyam, both aged 23, typify this phenomenon, having taken full advantage of the space given to them versus Malaysia. Maraaba, a versatile midfielder, has long been adept at getting forward, having notched ten goals in 14 matches with the Olympic and senior teams.
“I’ve been waiting for these qualifiers, as I wasn’t able to take part in the Challenge Cup or the Asian Cup," Maraaba said. "After getting nine minutes against Saudi Arabia, I was delighted to play a key role as part of the starting line-up. I play in midfield, but I always like to get into the box, which is something that the coach encourages me to do anyway.
“For my first goal, I got myself into a good position and finished off a great team move, and I thank my team-mates for that. My second one was nice because no-one was expecting me to head the ball from that distance or angle. I saw the goalkeeper hesitate and quickly decided to lob it over him.”
Seyam, meanwhile, was instrumental throughout the match in Kuala Lumpur, opening his international account in style and providing a perfect cross for Maraaba for Palestine’s fifth goal. He also boasts an impressive strike rate, netting 18 times for Thakafi Tulkarm in the West Bank Premier League.
“Everyone feared for us after we lost in injury time against the Saudis, but we put that to the back of our minds as we travelled to Malaysia so that we could achieve what was expected of us,” Seyam explained.
“When I found out I was starting the game, I wanted to show the coach he’d made the right decision, which I was able to do with the help of my team-mates, who enabled me to score twice and provide an assist. It was a tremendous victory all-round.”
Seyam’s show of skill in the run-up to the third goal, during which he skipped past three Malaysian defenders before slotting the ball calmly past the goalkeeper, was the highlight of an excellent personal performance.
“Scoring two goals is part of my duties, as I’m supposed to provide support to our forwards," he said. "I spotted a gap between the defenders and managed to slip between them. And then there was just the goalkeeper to beat, and he was unable to stop my shot. When you score away, you don’t expect the home fans to applaud, but they did, and that gave me such a warm feeling.”
Seyam also snatched the sixth goal that rounded off The Knights’ fantastic attacking display. “The match was won, but we kept going forward,” he recalled. “I got myself into the box, got on the end of a low cross and put it away. It felt like we’d made a real breakthrough, like when we won the 2014 Challenge Cup.
"I also thought of my late father, who would have been pleased with how I played, just as he was last year. As a tribute to him, I’m going to aim to play like that every time.”
In a qualifying section that contains Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, the Palestinians were not given much of a chance prior to the start of the Russia 2018 campaign. The encounter with the Green Falcons, during which the underdogs fought back twice only to lose in the final seconds, has proved to be a source of inspiration ahead of their third fixture with UAE.
“Despite the defeat in Dammam, we got over our fears and are now convinced that we can compete with all of our group opponents,” said Maraaba. “Playing the UAE has got all the players really motivated. We want to find our way to goal again and pick up a win that would be very significant for us.”
Tuesday’s match will be held on the outskirts of Jerusalem, where Seyam was born and learned his trade with the Abna Al Quds club. “Simply pulling on the national jersey and playing in Jerusalem is already a wonderful thing,” he said.
“The fact that the match is an important step toward World Cup qualification will make this a real celebration. I’m sure our supporters will turn up in good numbers and give us great support, and I hope that we’ll be smiling as the final whistle goes.”