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Uri Levy

Palestinian champions book their place in AFC Cup

Oday Dabbagh is a rising star of Palestinian football [Photo: FootballPalestine]

Date of publication: 14 February, 2019

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Al-Hilal, Jerusalem's Lions, now face opposition from Syrian, Lebanese and Jordanian giants.

With the Asian Cup now long gone, the Middle East is again focusing on club football and the continental club competitions.

The Asian Champions League and the AFC Cup qualification playoffs kicked off this week, as two Middle Eastern teams, Iraq's Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya and Palestine's Hilal Al-Quds, took part in dramatic and historic encounters. 

On Tuesday, Iraqi mega-club Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya played in Tashkent against Pakhtakor in front of more than 15,000 fans.

In the past few years, the Iraqi Air Force club has won an impressive list of titles. Three consecutive AFC Cups, an Iraqi championship title and an Iraqi cup, encouraging fans from all over the region to endorse them in yet greater challenges.

The club has now set its eyes on the biggest stage for clubs in Asia - the Asian Champions League itself.

Bassem Qasim's team had high hopes before the playoff match against Uzbek powerhouse Pakhtakor, but the game was goalless until the 76th minute - when Jaloliddin Masharipov scored the home team's first goal.

Kamoliddin Tajiev doubled the Uzbek lead in the 84th minute and Jawiya's dream began to fade.

A late goal from Hammadi Ahmad was too little, too late, and the Iraqis lost 2-1 - already eliminated from the AFC Champions League qualifiers.

Due to the AFC regulations, a team knocked out in this stage of the Champions League is also ineligible for the AFC Cup, the Asian equivalent of UEFA's Europa League, and so for the first time in the history of the tournament, no team will defend its AFC Cup title.

Al-Jawiya, who spent last year becoming the Iraqi version of Sevilla and an emerging West Asian power, will in 2019 see continental football only on television while fighting for Iraq's domestic titles.


Meanwhile, the Al-Jawiya Eagles' biggest rival, Al-Zawra'a - who won the Iraqi League last season - will be the only Iraqi representative in this year's Champions League. Al-Zawra'a is the first Iraqi team to take part in the competition since 2010.

But not all Middle Eastern teams finished their games in tears this week. Hilal Al-Quds, champions of Palestine for the past two seasons, completed a dream AFC Cup playoff round with two victories over Al-Nassr from Oman.

The Jerusalem Lions arrived for the second leg in Salalah with a 2-1 lead from the first match in Al-Ram following goals from the two young guns, Oday Dabbagh and Mousa Firawi. Everything was ready for the second leg in Oman.

As happens every time a Palestinian team has to travel abroad, the road was filled with problems and obstacles. Coach Khader Obeid could not join the travelling delegation as he couldn't get permission to leave his post as a school teacher in East Jerusalem.

Samer Jundi, meanwhile, was prohibited from travelling with the team due to restrictions placed upon him by the occupying Israeli authority. Israel's Co-ordinator of Government Activities in the Territories has yet to respond to requests for comment.

In Salalah, Hilal faced a tougher match, but it was Oday Dabbagh again who managed to score in the 74th minute, with a solo effort, running half the length of the pitch, to hand the Palestinian champions their ticket to the AFC Cup group stage for the first time in the club's history.

After two-year hiatus, Palestinian football has a representative in Asia's second-flight competition, with Hilal being the third Palestinian team ever to qualify for this stage.

In Group Al-Hilal will meet few the most notable clubs in the Levant: Al-Jaish, the champions of Syria, Nejmeh, Lebanon's biggest club, and none other than Al-Wehdat, the Palestinian club from Jordan.

It's unlikely that the Syrian and Lebanese teams will be visiting Al-Hilal's renovated ground at Faisal Husseini Stadium in the outskirts of Jerusalem, due to the diplomatic situation between both countries and Israel. Those games are tipped to take place in Bahrain.

Nevertheless, the Green Hulks from Amman will arrive in what will be a truly festive event of Palestinian football and identity.

Hilal Al-Quds have made history - and now the real hard work begins.

 

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here.

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