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Two weeks ahead of Palestine’s opening game at the 2023 Asian Cup in Qatar, the team is struggling to focus as war rages on in Gaza, where thousands have been killed.

Some players have lost loved ones in Israel’s relentless bombardment of the besieged territory since October 7.

Much of Gaza has been reduced to rubble, including stadiums, in air and artillery strikes and a ground offensive, and football fields have been used as makeshift graves for some of the dead as many cemeteries are either full or inaccessible.

“Everyone is glued to the news, before and after training, be it on the bus or at the hotel,” the team’s coach, Makram Daboub, said from Saudi Arabia where the players were training.

Qatar hosts the 2023 Asian Cup from January 12 to February 10, and Palestine will play its opening game on January 14 against Iran.

The players have “a constant feeling of anxiety for their families”, Daboub, a former Tunisia coach and player, said by telephone.

The Palestinian Football Association had celebrated in June last year when the national team won – for the third time – a spot in the Asian cup.

But with no end in sight to the Gaza war, the team now feels crushed as they try to prepare for the upcoming competition.

“We have physical, technical and tactical problems due to the suspension of the tournament… as well as psychological issues,” said Daboub.

Since October 7 – when Hamas launched a surprise attack on southern Israel for what the group says was in retaliation to decades of blockade and aggression – football matches in the Gaza Strip and Israeli-occupied West Bank have been suspended.

Many players are struggling, particularly those like Mahmoud Wadi and Mohammed Saleh who have family trapped in Gaza where their homes have been destroyed, said Daboub.

“They are suffering,” he said.

Others have relatives who have had to flee the indiscriminate Israeli bombardment in the north of the territory and seek safety in the south, “where conditions are difficult”, he added.

The UN says 85 percent of Gaza’s population has been displaced and no area of the crowded territory was safe, as Israel has extended its bombardment from north to south.

The October 7 attack was the worst in Israeli history, killing over 1,400 people. The war on Gaza has been the bloodiest ever, killing at least 21,978 people – mostly women and children – according to the territory’s health ministry.

‘Palestinian flag, identity’

Daboub said the team hopes to “qualify for the latter stages of the Asian Cup and show the honourable face of Palestinian football”.

Most importantly, the coach said, “raising the Palestinian flag” in international arenas “affirms Palestinian identity and shows that in Palestine people deserve freedom and a better life”.

Palestinian Football Federation president Jibril Rajub said the Gaza war wreaked havoc on “sports and youth” movements.

“So far, more than 1,000 members of sports, youth and scout movements have been killed,” said Rajub.

He accused Israeli forces of “targeting Palestinian sports clubs… in flagrant violation of the Olympic charter”.

He mentioned specifically “horrible images” that emerged from the Yarmouk football stadium in Gaza which Israeli forces “turned into a detention, abuse and interrogation centre”.

He was referring to Israeli media footage showing scores of stripped Palestinians, including children, sitting on the ground of the stadium.

Rajub said Yarmouk stadium was built in 1939, making it one of the oldest in the Palestinian territories.

The federation has sent letters to the International Olympic Committee and FIFA demanding an “urgent international probe into (Israeli) occupation crimes against sports and athletes in Palestine”.

Palestine will play its opening game on January 14 against Iran [Getty/archive]

Source: The New Arab Staff & Agencies

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