Palestine score but well beaten by Iran at Asian Cup

Focusing solely on football is an impossible task for Palestine’s players. The build-up to the Asian Cup in Qatar has been marred by over three months of relentless attacks on Gaza, and while the recent escalation in violence has been shocking, playing against the backdrop of serious conflict is nothing new to those representing the Palestine national team.

Defensive midfielder Mohammed Rashid and his teammates are footballers, not fighters; their role for many years has been to build awareness about the Palestinian struggle — something even more vital in the current climate.

“Whenever we play for the Palestine national team, we are raising the name, raising the knowledge of our country and what is happening,” Rashid told Arab News, ahead of the team’s first match against Iran on Sunday night at Education City Stadium.

While most Palestinian players have historically tried to say out of politics, the current situation in Gaza has seen many use their voice to highlight the plight of their compatriots.

“As players we have always had to be careful what we say about politics because if you speak about it too much, they will stop you from playing,” Rashid said.

“It has happened before to my teammates; my friend Ahmed Abu Khadija was arrested the day we won the championship with Jabal Al-Mukaber last year. We try to focus on football, but it is difficult.”

Taking a clear moral stance is not something new to Rashid, who has been fundraising for those affected by the attacks on Gaza across his social media channels over the past couple of months. While playing for Persib Bandung in Indonesia, he refused to be photographed next to a FIFA anti-war banner in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Rashid’s personal protest against the hypocrisy of the messaging won him many admirers worldwide and contributed to him being named Indonesian football’s Fans’ Player of the Year.

“We were told to stand in front of a ‘Stop the War’ banner, but it hurt because (even before the current Gaza conflict), bombings would happen every couple of months in Palestine and nobody cared, nobody spoke about it,” Rashid said.

“I took a step back as I didn’t want to take the picture because it felt that nobody sees who we are and nobody sees that we’re living or that we exist. That’s why I did it and I have never regretted that.

“In Indonesia, everyone was supportive because they love Palestine, but I also received support from countries around the world. I will always stick by my principles.”

Rashid was born and raised in Ramallah and never had designs on being a professional footballer. He went to college in the US on a soccer scholarship, graduated and was happily working in a warehouse in Chicago when he first heard about an opportunity to sign for Palestinian Premier League club Hilal Al-Quds.

He traded Chicago for Jerusalem and made his senior debut for the Palestine national team a year later.

“I went from being a forklift truck driver to a footballer quite quickly, which was obviously a big change,” Rashid said. “Life back in Palestine also felt very different from what I had experienced in America.

“Fundamentally in America there’s freedom. Nobody asks you anything there or tells you you can’t go somewhere. There aren’t barriers and checkpoints where you are asked why you sneezed.

“The basis of a good life is being free, which is not something that we have in Palestine.”

Rashid played for Palestine at the 2019 Asian Cup, coming on a substitute in the 3-0 group stage defeat to Australia before playing most of the following match — a 0-0 draw against Jordan that saw Palestine narrowly miss out on reaching the last-16 for the first time.

This time around, motivation is even higher for Rashid and his teammates to make history and qualify for the knockout stage for the first time. Standing in their way is Iran, UAE and Hong Kong — the latter of which offers Palestine’s best shot at three points and potential progress through the group.

“The 2019 tournament was a great experience for me as s first time in a big continental competition; it gave me a taste of how it could be and was a great feeling to be able to play against players that play in the Championship and some in the Premier League, too,” Rashid said.

“The goal is to be to get out of the group stage this year because for the past two times we haven’t done it. This time we want to qualify to the next round and we have to take it step by step.

“We played against Iran in a in a friendly before the 2019 Asian Cup and we drew 1-1. But you know, right now it’s different. They are a World Cup team, a tough opponent, but at the end of the day it is football and you never know what can happen. There’s no impossible in football.”

Outside of football, many of Rashid’s fellow Palestinians face impossible situations amid the daily horrors in Gaza. The midfielder and his teammates know that the Asian Cup provides a platform to continue conversations about what is happening in Palestine.   

“Football has been important because it puts Palestine on the map. It makes people recognize where Palestine is, that it exists. The Asian Cup gives us another opportunity to make sure people are talking about Palestine.”