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Uri Levy

AFC clash shows off Palestine's footballing development

Jordan's Wehdat travelled to Palestinian champions Hilal al-Quds for Palestine's first-ever AFC match [Uri Levy]

Date of publication: 14 March, 2019

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No AFC Cup match had ever been played in the occupied Palestinian territories, until Jordanian champions Al-Wehdat this week took on Palestine's champions, Hilal al-Quds.

"Allah, Al-Wehdat, Al-Quds Arabiyeh." The chant filled the air over and over again at the renovated Faisal Husseini Stadium in Al-Ram, near Jerusalem.

This small, deprived town had suddenly turned in to a footballing mega-capital. Children were dressed in green and white, red and black, women took selfies, and a crowd of around 11,000 gathered in the terraces.

It didn't happen just like that. It happened because Al-Wehdat, the Jordanian champions and the most prominent Palestinian symbol in Jordan, had arrived in town for their first ever official football match in Palestine - an AFC Cup clash against the Palestinian champions, Hilal Al-Quds.

The 2019 AFC Cup group A has assembled four Levantine teams: Al-Wehdat, Hilal Al-Quds, Al-Jaish from Syria and Nejmeh from Lebanon.

As both the Syrian and Lebanese teams refused to come to play in Al-Ram, considering a visit to the occupied Palestinian territories an act of "normalisation" with Israel, Al-Wehdat will be the only team to play in Al-Ram this campaign.

Founded at 1956 by Palestinian refugees from a camp in the western part of Amman under the same name, Al-Wehdat is probably the second or third most popular team in Palestine. Real Madrid is first, and then Palestine's national team, and Al-Wehdat is a close third. Therefore, the presence of Al-Wehdat fans in the stadium was impressive with a few who had made the trip from Jordan, but thousands from all over the West Bank, mainly Hebron, who came to support the team against their rivals from Jerusalem - Hilal. 

Hilal Al-Quds, who won the Palestinian League for the past two seasons, is again on the rise.

With a young and promising team and a growing fanbase in East Jerusalem and beyond, the club was deemed a potential "dark horse" of group A.

Hilal was missing its first choice goalkeeper, Rami Hamadeh, and with Khaled Azzam in front of the net, the defence looked shaky and lacking in confidence.



The Jordanians, meanwhile, enjoyed themselves. Azzam simply let one ball pass straight by him, presumably thinking the shot was not likely to hit the target. Azzam was wrong, and Hilal were 1-0 down.

Hanni Abdallah equalised beautifully for Hilal with a shot from outside the box. The game was played quite openly by both teams, but it became clear early on which side would be favourites.

In the five minutes between the 36th and 41st, Baha Faisal scored a magnificent hat-trick, including one Dennis Bergkamp-esque goal flying above Hilal's centre back, Khalil Freg. It was 4-1 to Al-Wehdat at half time.

But the scoreline didn't stop both sets of fans singing together - not only the words at the beginning of this column - but also "Sha'ab Wahad Mu Sha'aben" ["One people, not two"], as the sense of camaraderie built.

In the second half, Saleh Rateb nailed a goal for the Wehdaties to make it 5-1, and performed the sujood in front of the Jerusalemite crowd. It was a demolition of the home side.

They think it's all over? Not yet. Red-hot Baha Faisal smashed in yet another goal, as he completed his super hat-trick and the scoreboard showed in big green figures: 6-1 to the visitors.

Hilal won a penalty one minute before the final whistle, which local wonder-kid Oday Dabagh converted to conclude the match. A 2-6 goalfest sent Al-Wehdat home as worthy winners.

"I made my way from Irbid [in Jordan], to watch my team play this historic match," Mustafa, a Wehdat fan, told The New Arab.

"Of course I am happy, but I am also sad for Hilal Al-Quds, and the home fans who were simply tremendous hosts for us," he concluded.

Regardless of the final result, this match was an essential step for Palestinian football, continuing its slow, sometimes incoherent and unusual development.

Set in the daily reality of the West Bank, seeing a match of a continental standard was indeed one of the major highlights for Palestinian football in recent years.

The fact that an Arab team arrived to play in front of a Palestinian crowd was key - but that it was not just any Arab squad, but the most famous Arab team in Palestine, was a definite bonus. 

 

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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