The Final Challenge: Palestine and the Phillipines

Chris Greatwich’s Twitter profile reads as follows: “Professional footballer and Academy Director at Kaya FC. On occasion, I bang in a few goals for the Philippine National Team.” One of those goals came in the final minute of stoppage time at the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup to salvage a 1-1 draw against relative titans Singapore. Another came in the very next match against Vietnam, opening up a 1-0 lead in what would become a 2-0 victory. Still another—perhaps the most important one yet—came just yesterday in the semi-finals of the 2014 AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Challenge Cup against host country Maldives. It put the Azkals ahead 3-2 in extra time, broke Maldivian hearts, and sent them to their first-ever Challenge Cup final.


 

Jawhar Nasser Jawhar and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya will never play football again. The two Palestinian teenagers were returning home when, at a checkpoint, they were shot repeatedly in the feet, mauled by attack dogs, and beaten by Israeli forces. Both survived, but will be fortunate just to be able to walk again. A Border Police spokesman said that they had been carrying bombs and had been the instigators. But they were also football players. Jawhar took nearly a dozen bullets to his feet and Halabiya took one in each of his feet. Their country won 2-0 against Afghanistan in their semi-final match in the AFC Challenge Cup amid continuing cries for Israel to be kicked out of FIFA.


 

Out there on the fringes of international football, in the countries who have never qualified for a World Cup, in the countries where sports like cricket, basketball, and baseball reign supreme, there are still stories to tell. The smallest country can, theoretically, qualify for and win the World Cup. Those who deny that every competitive match counts are liars.

This year’s edition of the AFC Challenge Cup, the fifth, is also the last. It is, in essence, a qualification tournament for the much more prestigious AFC Asian Cup, the top tournament in Asian football. Separate qualification exists for the Asian Cup but only for teams classified as “developed” or “developing” associations. The Challenge Cup is for “emerging” associations. Yeah, it’s confusing and subjective, and “developing” associations still enter Challenge Cup qualification. Thankfully, the AFC has scrapped future editions of the Challenge Cup, expanding the 2019 Asian Cup to 24 teams and integrating the qualification process.

The idea behind the Challenge Cup is to offer high-level, meaningful competition to countries who rarely have a chance to get it. In theory, it’s a good concept, especially when the prize is automatic qualification to the major continental tournament. With that qualification comes legitimacy, exposure, and even a shot at prize money, which will be offered for the first time in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup. But streamlining the process in the future will make it easier for everyone.

That’s not, of course, to diminish the importance of the final Challenge Cup. There’s still a trophy to be won, there’s still an Asian Cup spot to fill, and there’s still football to be played. In truth, however, controversy swirled over a year before the tournament began. Like the Asian Cup, a qualification process exists for the Challenge Cup, with entrants slotted into five groups of four with the group winners and the two best second-place teams qualifying along with the hosts Maldives.

By March 21, 2013, the qualification process had ended for four out of the five groups. The day before, however, Brunei’s football federation pulled their team out of qualification, with no warning for the coach or the players. The players anonymously sounded off to Goal.com Singapore: “I have experienced this situation three times. How can we be a good example to the younger generation if there is still internal conflict?” Indeed, Brunei was almost kicked out of FIFA in 2011 due to allegations of internal corruption.

The withdrawal kicked Bangladesh out of the Challenge Cup. Because their withdrawal left a group with only three teams, results against the fourth-placed team in each group were invalidated when tabulating the two best second-place finishers. Their 4-0 result against Northern Mariana Islands was now null and void. Instead, Turkmenistan—part of the group Brunei had been in—and Laos went through.

What that left us with was the final Challenge Cup, with eight countries: Palestine, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, and hosts Maldives in one group and Philippines, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Laos in the other. If, like me, you need a quick refresher on where Maldives is, it’s an archipelago nation with over a thousand islands just south of India. Its population is just over three hundred thousand. It is not, like Spain or Brazil, a football hotbed.

That said, their home field advantage was very stellar. An island nation so far away from most of the participants precluded fans and citizens of most of the participating countries from coming. Dedicated forces showed up, of course, but they numbered in the hundreds. Only one game not involving Maldives broke a thousand in attendance and that was the Group B match between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Every Maldives match had more than 8,000 in attendance. They rode that support, along with the goalscoring ability of star player Ali Ashfaq, to the semifinals.

We have already gone over Philippines and Palestine, but the other semifinalist, Afghanistan, also has a story to tell. Though one of the founding members of the AFC in 1954, they played no fixtures between 1984 and 2002 for a bevy of reasons. In the decade since, a generation that grew up without football is making up for lost time, with a first-ever championship win in the 2013 SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) Championship and the FIFA Fair Play Award for the same year.

There are always stories to tell.

Neither the Philippines nor Palestine have ever qualified for the AFC Asian Cup. One of them will on Friday, when the final is played. It would be a triumph for either; Philippines hit near rock bottom in the FIFA rankings as recently as 2006 and Palestine have been held back by Israel for almost their entire modern footballing history. Neither country will play in Brazil this summer but both deserve your time and attention, if only for a little bit.


 

Basketball has long been the dominant sport in the Philippines. Imported from America in the early 20th century, it has held firm and, as a result, the Philippines are one of just a few countries in the world where basketball is the most popular sport. A runner-up finish in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship, which they hosted, qualified their basketball team for the 2014 World Cup of Basketball later this summer, their first qualification since 1978.

But their football team, the Azkals (a portmanteau of asong kalye, the Tagalog for “street dog”), are starting to make a name for themselves. That flirtation with rock bottom coincided with no entries into qualification for either the 2006 or 2010 World Cup. In 2011, things turned around. A 5-1 aggregate victory over Sri Lanka earned the Azkals their first-ever FIFA World Cup qualifying victory, though they lost to Kuwait in the second round. They reached the semis of the 2012 Challenge Cup, losing to Turkmenistan but beating none other than Palestine 4-3 to clinch third place. And now, they stand on the verge of the 2014 Challenge Cup Final.

How did that turnaround occur? A video game is partly to blame. In 2005, someone playing Football Manager noticed that young Englishmen James and Phil Younghusband, then teenagers and members of the Chelsea F.C. Academy, were eligible for the Philippines because of their mother. They tipped off the Philippine Football Federation and the two brothers received a surprise call-up to the U-23 team. Now they are “the poster boys for Philippine football today.” They certainly deserve it—James has nine goals for his country and Phil has thirty-six, including one in the group stage of this year’s Challenge Cup and one against Maldives just yesterday.

Both brothers now live and play their club football in the Philippines. The identity of the anonymous gamer from 2005 will never be known, but he helped save a country’s football team. In fact, like the Younghusbands, most Azkals were not born in the Philippines. Every goalscorer so far for the Akzals in the Challenge Cup this year was born outside the Philippines, save for Simone Rota, who was adopted by Italian parents. These players had a parent from the Philippines and often return there to play both domestic and international football. These are players that are coming home.

Qualification for the 2015 Asian Cup would be the bookend of a triumphant year in Filipino sports. From the runner-up finish in those 2013 FIBA Asia Championships (which included an upset of South Korea) to Bobby Ray Parks Jr., an entrant in this year’s NBA Draft, to the world basketball championships in August, playing in Australia in 2015 would be a remarkable continuation of an emerging tradition, regardless of the result.


 

Palestine’s football history dates back to before the creation of the State of Israel. As British territory after the First World War, football had a foundation early on. Palestinian teams made up entirely of Jews actually contested qualification matches for the 1934 and 1938 World Cups, losing out to Egypt and Greece respectively. The Israeli team inherited that history, and it took until 1998 for Palestine to be a part of FIFA again.

Even then, Palestine did not play a true home match until 2008—sixty-eight years since a friendly versus Lebanon. It was also a friendly, a 1-1 draw versus Jordan. It was a bigger friendly than most. In attendance were FIFA President Sepp Blatter and the Prime Minister of Palestine. It represented the first step out of Israel’s shadow, especially considering that Palestine is still a nation not recognized worldwide as fully sovereign.

The shadow will be difficult to escape, as the tragic story of Jawhar and Halabiya can attest to. Unfortunately, they are two of many in the difficult history of Palestinian football. Three national team players were civilian casualties of the Gaza War. Multiple competitive matches have been cancelled and awarded to the other team due to exit visa restrictions imposed on the national team. Mahmoud Sarsak’s international career ended when he was accused of being a Jihadist and administratively detained for three years without charges.

These stories fail to make headlines in the Western world. Palestinian qualification for the Asian Cup would definitely make headlines; the host country, Australia, is one of fifty-nine UN member states who do not recognize the State of Palestine, as are fellow Asian Cup competitors Japan and South Korea. Palestine’s greatest prize if they win the final might not be a trophy. It might be deserved legitimacy. What greater prize is there than to have the opportunity to beat a nation that does not even officially recognize your sovereignty?


 

Amazingly, that could be a possibility. The groups have already been drawn, and the winners of Friday’s final know that they will be in a group with Japan, Jordan, and Iraq. Japan are both the defending champions and the most successful country in the history of the Asian Cup, with four titles. Iraq won the 2007 edition. Jordan narrowly missed out on qualifying for the World Cup this year, making it all the way to the inter-continental playoff where they were shellacked 5-0 by Uruguay. Who will add to their history? Only one team can do so, and you have a reason to find out now—the final kicks off at noon Eastern Time on Friday.

 

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