Palestinian pride on display at home soccer match

The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 4:07 PM

AL-RAM, West Bank -- The Palestinian national soccer team lost to Thailand in a penalty shootout on Wednesday in an Olympic qualifying match deep in symbolism: it's the first time the Palestinians have hosted a competitive match at the international level, and for excited fans in this conflict-ridden area, it marks an important step in their struggle for independence.

Trailing 1-0 from the first leg in Bangkok, the Palestinian team scored the only goal through Abdul Hamid Abuhabib just before halftime but lost 6-5 in the shootout.

However, the game meant much more to Palestinians than the final result.

"The world now will see Palestine in different eyes, in sports eyes," said Jibril Rajoub, a former West Bank strongman who now heads the Palestinian soccer union. "This is a new launch for the Palestinian people toward freedom and independence."

The political undertones were ever-present as thousands of fans, mostly men, braved biting wind and cold conditions to fill the bleacher seats, waving banners, blowing trumpets, banging drums and chanting "Palestine" in unison.

"In a way, we won the game before it started," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said. "It's the first home game for our team and soon we will have the first ever home game in the Palestinian state."

Fayyad said sport is an important element of nation-building, adding that "we are going to be ready for statehood."

Pictures of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and former leader Yasser Arafat decorated the stadium alongside the red, green and black Palestinian flag. Fans chanted, "With our souls, with our bodies, we will defend Palestine."

"Without pride you cannot have passion, and soccer is all about passion," the public address speaker pronounced.

Othman al-Jamal, a 20-year-old fan from the northern West Bank town of Tulkarem, said it was inspiring to see his team compete at this level.

"Having a foreign team on the land of Palestine is like breaking the will of the (Israeli) occupation," he said. "Here we are living a normal life, like the other independent states."

Efraim Zinger, chairman of the Israel Olympic Committee, welcomed the match.

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