Tunisia eliminated from AFCON after draw with South Africa

The whistle went, and for the first time in 90-plus minutes Mohamed Salah did not seem to know what to do.

That was just for a second, before the Palestine defender sank to the turf at the Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium and cried. He was not the only one. It is not that hard to guess what he must have been thinking about and hard not to wonder if the people back in his native Gaza had any idea of what had happened in Qatar, had any idea of what their national team had managed to do in the biggest competition in the world’s biggest continent.

The message was clear however; this was all for Gaza.

Salah plays his football in Egypt but has many family members and friends in his homeland, where people are fearing for their lives amid the daily death and destruction that comes down from the skies. More than 25,000 have died, thousands more have been wounded and lost their homes.

On this field in Doha, however, something amazing happened. Here was a story about Palestine on the international stage that was not about bombs and missiles and death but about hope, pride and happiness. It is only football, but it is also so much more.

Talk about history being made in football can be cheap and cliched but then there are moments such as Tuesday that really do fit the description.

That was Palestine winning their first game at the Asian Cup, a victory that was even bigger as it sent them into the knockout stage, also for the very first time.

The 3-0 win over Hong Kong will never be forgotten. It was almost enough to send the team into second in the group above the UAE but the narrowest of goal difference margins means third place will have to do.

Oday Dabbagh, the star of the team, burst into life in this game, scoring Palestine’s first with a header before right-back Musab Al-Battat sent over another perfect cross for Zeid Qunbar to nod home.

On the hour, Tamer Seyam’s thunderous shot from outside the area bounced back off the crossbar for Dabbagh to get his second goal and his team’s third.

They have played their way into the hearts of all Palestinian fans. This was a team effort with the starting 11, the substitutes and the entire squad coming together.

This is a team that knows hardship. Players such as Salah and Mahmoud Wadi may play overseas but are from Gaza and have family and friends to worry about. Coach Makram Daboub couldn’t call up players from Gaza as he knew that they would not be able to report for duty. Preparation has been tough on and off the pitch.

“What can I say? I am so proud,” Daboub told Arab News. “We knew that we could do this but we had to work so hard in all of the three games. Against Hong Kong we knew that we had to win and knew what we needed to do, and we worked hard and managed to qualify.”

It started against Iran. Before the game kicked off, Iranian fans showed their sympathy for what the people of Gaza are going through. It was an emotional moment but then it was followed by some clinical finishing from Team Melli who ran out 4-1 winners. It looked like it was almost over before it began and it was not, in truth, a great performance from the losing team but they kept fighting and working and bounced back.

“I always had confidence in our players. Iran are one of the top teams in Asia and we played well in the second half of the game with the United Arab Emirates,” Daboub said. “We have improved in every game and while the second round will be tough, I have faith in my players.”

Australia are the most likely opponents. November’s World Cup qualifier may have gone the way of the Socceroos but it was only a 1-0 defeat and Palestine had their chances. This is also a knockout game where anything can happen. Extra time and penalties are always looming like shadows and a red card or bad decision can change everything.

But everything has already changed.

“This is for the people of Palestine and we have delivered a message to the rest of the world that these are people who deserve a better life and they love peace and freedom,” Daboub said.

And they love their football team.