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AFC Asian Cup 2023: All you need to know about Palestine and its football culture

Published at :February 10, 2024 at 7:15 PM
Modified at :February 10, 2024 at 7:15 PM
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(Courtesy : AFC Media)

Dipro Mukherjee

Palestine won hearts by qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup 2023 Round of 16.

The Lions of Canaan had a gilt-edged campaign in the ongoing edition of the AFC Asian Cup. Even though they got knocked out in the Round of 16 after Akram Afif’s 49th-minute strike sealed the quarter-final spot for Qatar ending Palestine’s Asian dreams, their 3-0 win over Hong Kong in the Group Stage at the Abdullah Bin Khalifa stadium will be penned down in letters of glitter and gold.

Palestine are currently ranked #99 in the world, and #15 in Asia. During the Group Stage draw of the AFC Asian Cup, Palestine were drawn into Group C alongside Asian giants Iran, the UAE, and Hong Kong. They secured four points in all total from three of their Group Stage fixtures thus finishing third in Group C and eventually making their way into the knockouts. In their RO16 fixture against Qatar, they almost gave an equal fight as both teams were vying for the quarter-final spot but fell short of an equalizer in the second half to keep their hopes alive.

Here we take a deep dive into the culture of football that prevails in Palestine and how the Lions of Canaan have nurtured players like Mus’ab Al Battat, Oday Dabbagh, and Mohammed Khalil over the years.

AFC Asian Cup 2023: All you need to know about Palestine and its football culture
Palestine keeper celebrating the victory over Hong Kong. (Courtesy: AFC)

Domestic Football System

In Palestine’s domestic football system, there are two premier division leagues. The Palestine Premier League is known as the West Bank Premier League and the other one is the Gaza Strip Premier League. Palestine have two separate domestic football league systems since the nation has had two separate territories ever since they were a part of the British Mandate of Palestine.

Each premier division has its own, separate pyramid. While the West Bank’s football pyramid has got four stages in all, the Gaza Strip has got one less. The next three divisions under the West Bank Premier League are the West Bank First League, the West Bank Second League, and the West Bank Third League, respectively.

The divisions following the Gaza Strip Premier League have a similar nomenclature to that of the West Bank. The Gaza Strip First League and the Gaza Strip Second League follow the premier division down under the pyramid.

Every top-tier tourney has got 12 teams vying for the championship with each team having a roster of 23 players. In a season, all 12 teams of the top flights participate in 22 games. Two teams are demoted to the tournament’s second division, the First League.

Apart from these two football league systems, three domestic cups can also be found in the flowchart. They are the Palestine Cup, the Yasser Arafat Cup, and the Gaza Strip Super Cup. While the Palestine Cup and the Yasser Arafat Cup are held in the West Bank sector, the Gaza Strip Super Cup has got its name from its organizing territory itself.

AFC Asian Cup 2023: All you need to know about Palestine and its football culture West Bank Premier League Shabab Al Khalil
A snap from Shabab Al Khalil’s West Bank Premier League triumph in 2020-21. (Courtesy: AFC)

 The Palestine Women’s League is also held to nurture women’s football in the country.

Top Players in the Premier Division

Shehab Qunbar (Jabal Al-Mukaber)

The 26-year-old Palestinian forward plays for Jabal Al-Mukaber in the Palestinian top-flight, West Bank Premier League. Shehab Qunbar was the top goal-scorer for two consecutive seasons in the premier division. In the 2020-21 season, he bagged the podium for the highest goal-scorer with 13 goals while in the following season, he repeated the same feat but with a whopping 24 goals. He holds the record for scoring the second-highest number of hat-tricks in the West Bank Premier League.

AFC Asian Cup 2023: All you need to know about Palestine and its football culture Shehab Qunbar
Qunbar in action against UAE in the AFC Asian Cup. (Courtesy: AFP)

In 2022, he signed for Jordan Premier League side Al-Wehdat, on a loan deal. He was able to net four goals in 10 appearances. Shehab Qunbar also won the Jordan FA Cup 2022 with the team. Participating in the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship, he scored in a 5-1 victory over Thailand, guaranteeing Palestine a spot in the quarter-finals. In 2021, he made his debut for the senior team against Kuwait. Shehab Qunbar was also a part of Palestine’s 26-man roster at the AFC Asian Cup 2023.

Mohammed Maraaba (Jabal Al-Mukaber)

The 29-year-old centre-forward who currently plays for Jabal Al-Mukaber was the highest goal-scorer with 21 goals in the 2022-23 season. He achieved this feat while donning the Hilal Al-Quds’ crest. To date, he has scored the most hat-tricks in the Palestinian top-flight. While playing for the Palestine U-23 side, he scored twice in seven appearances. Mohammed Maraaba made his senior team debut in 2018 under the then head coach of Palestine, Noureddine Ould Ali.

Top Players in Overseas

Oday Dabbagh (RC Sporting Charleroi)

Oday Dabbagh, the Palestine international, became the first-ever player from the nation to be featured in a European premier division. He signed for Belgian Pro League side, RC Sporting Charleroi. Ever since he joined the club, Dabbagh has been in the starting lineup on 14 occasions out of his 17 appearances to date. He has netted four goals already in the Belgian Pro League.

AFC Asian Cup 2023: All you need to know about Palestine and its football culture Oday Dabbagh Jackson Irvine
Dabbagh in action against Australia. (Courtesy: AFC)

His senior career took flight in 2015 when he joined West Bank Premier League side, Hilal Al-Quds. During his four-year stint at the club from 2015 to 2019, he scored 40 goals in 77 appearances. As far as his international career is concerned, Oday Dabbagh made his senior team debut in 2018. In his 35 appearances to date, the Palestinian linchpin has scored 13 times. He had also been a part of the Palestine U-19 and U-23 sides in his youth. In Palestine’s 3-0 victory over Hong Kong in the ongoing AFC Asian Cup, Oday Dabbagh got a brace to his name. Moreover, he is also the highest-rated Palestine player in FC 24.

Youth Football and Future

It is important to take into account the grassroots structure of Palestine’s football culture. Even though Palestine have a national youth framework, the grassroots level still needs to be developed domestically to guarantee a bright future in this sport.

Their AFC Asian Cup 2023 performance demonstrated their tactical prowess despite their limited infrastructure and development resources. This shows that if they refocus their attention on grassroots infrastructure development, they can have a promising future in football. The Palestine Football Association (PFA) can accomplish this goal by setting up youth and baby leagues. This will also assist the upcoming generation of football players in realizing their potential and moving closer to their goals.

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