Football finally comes home for Palestinian national team

Mokhtar Tlili, the Tunisian coach of the Palestinian national football team, gave his players a pep talk yesterday as they prepared for the first official match played on their home turf. "Be courageous out there," he said. "Don't be afraid."

The Palestinian team will face Thailand today as part of the Asian group in a qualifying match for the London Olympics in 2012. Thailand won 1-0 at their first meeting last month.

The game is being marked here as no less than an historic event for the Palestinian team, which until now has played only friendly matches in its upgraded stadium in Al-Ram, a West Bank suburb of Jerusalem. Official matches in previous years were played outside the Palestinian territories, usually in Jordan and Qatar, because of security concerns and a lack of infrastructure.

"This is more than just a game," said Abdel Majid Hijjeh, secretary general of the Palestinian Football Association. "It breaks the siege on Palestinian sports and the Palestinian people."

He was referring to the extraordinary circumstances under which the Palestinian team, divided between the West Bank and isolated Gaza Strip, has been put together. Permits had to be obtained from Israel for the entry of players from Gaza to the West Bank, and only six out of 11 were allowed in. Three arrived too late for registration, so only three will be taking the field.

Tlili, the coach for the past year, says he has had to leave the West Bank every three months and stay outside the territory for several weeks at a time before returning, under Israeli regulations governing permits to stay in the territory. He only returned on Monday to prepare for today's match. His players have been training with local coaching assistants. "The conditions are difficult, but what can you do?" said Tlili. "This is occupation."

Recruiting players for the Palestinian squad has been a challenge for the much-travelled coach. Tlili said he identified outstanding players from Gaza

on television broadcasts of matches, through media reports and with the help of a Palestinian colleague who coaches the national team contingent in the Gaza Strip. He recruited a player of Palestinian origin living in Sweden, and says he plans to find more who are playing in European teams.

Bringing the West Bank and Gaza players together after training separately has not been easy. "We have problems understanding one another on the field and playing in harmony," said Muhammad al-Sidudi, 20, a player from Gaza.

The Gaza players arrived only a few weeks ago, before the first match in Thailand. "Co-ordination between players takes a long time, at least six months, and the weeks we've been practising is not enough," said Mustafa Abu Qweik, 21, the team captain, who is from Ramallah. "What we lack in skills, we make up in fighting spirit.

"We can play despite all the pressures. Every player aspires to represent Palestine on an Olympic level, and we're proud. We hope to make Palestinians around the world happy."