Iraq and Palestine leave troubles at home and flourish at Asian Cup

COMMENT: Despite conflict raging at home, both countries have displayed a positive image in Australia heading into their Group D encounter
By Peter Staunton

Type the words "football" and "Gaza" into Google and the first hit is unlikely to be Palestine's 2015 AFC Asian Cup campaign. Just days after the World Cup final, four boys, Ahed Atef Bakr, Zakaria Ahed Bakr, Mohamed Ramez Bakr and Ismael Mohamed Bakr were killed by an Israeli gun boat on the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge.

The boys were playing football on the beach when the attack happened. The conflict left 2,000 Palestinians dead. There were reportedly 1,500 civilian casualties and 500 of those were children. Sixty-six soldiers and five civilians lost their lives on the Israeli side. Palestine's qualification was played out only two months before that summer of bloodshed.

It may not, yet, have anything other than 'Observer Status' at the United Nations but Palestine has been a full member of Fifa since 1998. This Asian Cup campaign is their first. 

Palestine fought hard to qualify, overcoming the Philippines in May in the last-ever AFC Challenge Cup to seal an automatic berth at these games. That in itself was one of the most remarkable sporting stories of 2014, a million figurative miles away from the bright lights of the Maracana in July. 

This Palestine team unites Gazans, those from the West Bank and a wide diaspora from all over the world at the Asian Cup in Australia - a country which fails to recognise its right to exist. 

“The most important part was having the Palestine flag and the national anthem in Australia. We want to produce a good performance to show everyone that Palestine with all the trouble at home, can still play football," coach Ahmed al Hassan said to last week.

Al Hassan rarely has a full squad for their training sessions due to Israeli military checkpoints and travel restrictions around Gaza and the West Bank. Players have been prevented from leaving, or entering, Palestinian territory. Singapore were awarded a 3-0 walkover victory for a World Cup qualification game in 2007 as the Palestine side could not secure exit visas.  

Their Football Association president, Jibril Rajoub, claimed ahead of the tournament that two players and one official were prevented from leaving by Israeli authorities. The side have tuned up for these games in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan as camps at home are simply impossible due to travel permit issues. 

The Palestine Stadium in the Gaza Strip has been bombed by the Israeli Defence Force on multiple occasions as it alleges rocket fire comes from that location. Israel has reportedly blocked shipments of equipment and building materials necessary for the development of Palestinian football.

Mahmoud Sarsak, a Palestine international, was administratively detained by Israeli forces as a suspected terrorist in 2009 and not released until 2012, by which time he had completed a 96-day hunger strike and seen his plight recognised in campaigns championed by Eric Cantona and Lilian Thuram. Legendary player Ahed Zaqout was killed during an Israeli shelling raid in August. 

Against that backdrop, their fate has been sealed after two matches. Two defeats, nine goals conceded and only one scored mean that they are out before the tournament has really begun. Iraq are their third and final Asian Cup Group D opponents and that game takes place on Tuesday night in Canberra.  

Palestine were outclassed by Japan, the defending champions, 4-0, on matchday one. If that was bad, what was to follow against Jordan was worse. Hamza al Dardour became only the fourth man in Asian Cup history to hit four goals in a match as the Jordanians won 5-1 and put Palestine out at the first hurdle.

Their Asian Cup campaign had no touch of the fairy tale about it but there are similarities in the adversity faced by Palestine and those encountered by Iraq in pulling off the most shocking international tournament win of all time - the Asian Cup in 2007. 

The Lions of Mesopotamia could not capitalise on their opening win over Jordan in their game against Japan on matchday two. They were edged out 1-0 by a Keisuke Honda penalty - a clash of the previous two winners of the competition. That fact alone is a reminder of the astonishing win in 2007 thanks to Younis Mahmoud's goal against Saudi Arabia in Jakarta. That is a long time ago now and this is very much a new generation.

There are plenty of young players in the squad, building on the semi-final appearance at the 2013 Under-20 World Cup, including Ali Adnan, the "Asian Gareth Bale" linked with a big-money move to Chelsea, and gifted teenage midfielder Humam Tariq.

They beat Jordan 1-0 thanks to a goal from Swindon Town's Yaser Kasim. They stand on the brink of qualification again. To do so they must defeat historic allies the Palestinians and hope Jordan do not beat the Japanese. 

"I knew before the match our ticket to qualify for the next round would be through the final match against Palestine," Iraq head coach Radhi Shenaishil said to after the matchday two defeat. 

Iraq came into the tournament in institutional crisis. Hakim Shaker was dismissed following a poor Gulf Cup in November. Shenaishil was only hired on a short-term contract 'on loan' from the Qatar Sports Club. Nonetheless, they have been sturdy so far in Australia and can reasonably expect to make the last eight. Furthermore, they haven't played a 'home' game in two years due to ongoing security concerns. 

In 2007, as they came to terms with the damage inflicted on the country by the US-led invasion of 2003 as well as widespread sectarian violence, the Lions of Mesopotamia laid to rest the ghost of Uday Hussein, the brutal son of Saddam who ruled Iraq's sporting institutions with great cruelty and under whom football could never flourish. 

This year Iraq play their football in the knowledge that one third of the nation has been ceded in territorial terms to Isis. The Iraqi people ignored warnings not to watch the World Cup in July by gathering in Baghdad's cafes to settle in front of their televisions. It is a football nation, for sure, and one which was cast adrift during the days with Uday at the helm.

“Hopefully, through these matches we can bring happiness to our country," talisman Younis Mahmoud told "As players we are there to win and bring happiness to our people. Hopefully we can do well and go far in this competition."