The 7-0 win over Bangladesh in Melbourne last week was about as smooth as possible a start to World Cup qualifying for the Socceroos, but this week’s follow up is set to be anything but. The Socceroos have landed in a troubled Middle East, where they take on Palestine in a game that has been moved to the neutral venue of Kuwait due to the Israel-Hamas war.
Palestine have not played at home since 2019 and are no strangers to disrupted preparations. But they had been scheduled to play Australia in the West Bank city of Ramallah before Israel declared war on Hamas after the 7 October attacks, during which the militant group killed 1,200 people and took more than 240 people hostage. Since then, 13,000 residents of Gaza have been killed in the Israeli offensive and vast swaths of the territory have been reduced to rubble.
The game in Ramallah would probably have been the biggest to have taken place in Palestine since it became a full Fifa member in 1998. Given the difficulties in getting out of Gaza and the West Bank, Palestine had been training in Jordan since 24 October to ensure they could physically get to their upcoming games. Not all could. Ibrahim Abuimeir, Khaled Al-Nabris and Ahmed Al-Kayed are stuck in Gaza. Many of those who did report for duty are preoccupied with the safety of their friends and family there, as well as in the West Bank.
“Of course, they are worried about the situation and are watching the news in the hotel or on their phones all the time,” Palestine coach Makram Daboub told Guardian Australia in the buildup to Tuesday’s game (Wednesday AEDT). “They are all anxious. They are doing their best but it is not easy.”
Mentally, there are issues but the team are preparing as best they can. At least there was a short journey – from Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates where they last played – for the team that arrived in Kuwait City on Friday looking fit and full of running against Lebanon. “Everyone is fine physically and everyone is excited to achieve a positive result against the Australian team,” Daboub said.
Had the game been scheduled for September rather than November, Socceroos coach Graham Arnold and his side would be playing in front of a passionate and proud home crowd.
“Playing on our home soil and in front of our fans would have given us even greater motivation and a great advantage in our chance to achieve victory,” Daboub said. “Even more so as I think Australia are not accustomed to playing on artificial grass. It would have been a huge event and everyone was looking forward to it. We also have a very good record at home.”
However, with violence also increasing in the West Bank, that home-field advantage has been lost. But there is the prospect of a healthy attendance at the Jaber Al-Ahmad International Stadium in Kuwait. “We hope that there will be a large crowd that is made up of Palestinians, Kuwaitis and other Arab communities that are residing in Kuwait,” Daboub said. “Their presence will be a great incentive and give us great support.”
That was in contrast to the empty stadium that Palestine faced in their opening game. Just hours after Australia put seven past Bangladesh, the lowest-ranked team in the group, Palestine were drawing 0-0 with Lebanon in Sharjah, in a match moved from Beirut due to security issues. For two evenly matched teams, the result was not a surprise but Daboub was pleased with most aspects of the performance which would have been even better had star forward Oday Dabbagh not been denied in the final moments.
“We deserved to win as we had a lot of scoring opportunities that we could not take,” the Tunisian said. “Lebanon are a strong team, however, and there are still five games left to play.”
Given that the top two teams from each of the nine groups of four will advance to the next stage and with Australia and Bangladesh expected to take first and last place, Lebanon and Palestine will probably compete for the second spot. For the latter, a first ever place in the final round of World Cup qualifying is the prize. Any points that can be taken off Australia, ranked 69 places higher at 27th, would be a major bonus.
“It is going to be very difficult,” said Daboub, who would not reveal whether he would tinker with his usual 4-3-3 formation. “We will be playing against one of the best teams in Asia at the present time, and our focus and mental presence must be high, and we must play with all our strength and fight for the ball on the field to achieve a positive result.”
Daboub is confident that despite the horrors at home, his players can pull off a result that would not only set the team on course for a first-ever final round spot but would be something historic and meaningful for millions of Palestinians around the world.
“We will not sit back and defend only,” he said. “We want to win. Whatever happens, I am proud of the players. They are doing their best and want to bring a little joy to the people of Palestine.”
Palestine play Australia at 5pm Tuesday (local)/1am Wednesday (AEDT) at Jabar Al-Ahmad International Stadium in Kuwait. Follow our blog for live updates