Giving New Meaning To ‘Group Of Death’

The Asian Cup is underway, the first of the six continental championships to take place in our latest four-year cycle, and thus the first that will send someone through to the 2017 Confederations Cup, the World Cup dress rehearsal. While everyone in the tournament has a mutual goal of saving continental face after the AFC delegation’s mass pratfall in Brazil, . Early action in the first three groups has seen five of the six matches obey the predictions of the pots. Host Australia beat Kuwait 4-1, South Korea beat Oman 1-0, Uzbekistan beat North Korea 1-0, China upset Saudi Arabia 1-0, Iran beat Bahrain 2-0, and Qatar’s bid to prove they are indeed a serious soccer nation by the time 2022 rolls around is off to a poor start with their 4-1 loss to the United Arab Emirates.

Then there’s Group D, featuring perhaps the most striking combination of storylines in the field. There’s defending champion Japan, coming off World Cup losses to Cote d’Ivoire and Colombia and a draw with Greece. There’s Jordan, home of Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, who has announced his intention of challenging Sepp Blatter for the presidency of FIFA. There’s Iraq, whose fortunes have been up and down ever since emerging from the horrors of Uday Hussein’s leadership a decade ago, an era in which players were routinely beaten and tortured if they didn’t play well enough for Uday’s liking.

And there’s Palestine, a team that has suffered immensely by way of its location. Palestinians are, as you know, split between the Gaza Strip and West Bank, with Israel tightly controlling travel between the two, the West Bank much more heavily. As such, a league uniting the two halves of Palestine is impossible, and so there are separate leagues for each half of the country. The West Bank league is the one that qualifies clubs to continental competition, as it’s internally agreed that the West Bank has the superior talent; the Gaza Strip league is more or less for local bragging rights and little else. The problem is, simply having a league there at all, or any semblances of basic civilization for that matter, is a rocky proposition.

Whatever it is that might be said about the war between Israel and Palestine, in a purely soccer context, Israel is the clear aggressor against Palestine. When Israel is banning the import of cement to the West Bank because they claim it might be used for military purposes, and when much of the West Bank has already been reduced to cement piles of rubble, it’s difficult to have any functioning infrastructure. When Israel controls who can leave the West Bank, it’s a simple matter to bar the exit of so many of Palestine’s national-team selections that they can no longer field a full starting 11, which is the way Palestine was forced to bow out of 2010 World Cup qualifying, the reason they push FIFA’s eligibility rules to their limit in order to bring in Palestinian expats from abroad to fill out the roster- players Israel can’t refuse travel rights to- and the reason that Palestine is forced to hold most of their ‘home’ games elsewhere in the Middle East, most commonly Qatar. And when Israel is outright killing a number of Palestinian players as part of the conflict, to say the least, it’s that much tougher building a roster.

And when Israel bombs a Gaza Strip pitch, twice, it’s that much tougher to be able to have a game at all. (Israel claimed Hamas was holding rockets there. No evidence beyond their say-so ever emerged. Nor do any of their stadiums look to have been hit by Palestine, though security forces in November announced a thwarted attempt on the home of club side Beitar Jerusalem. Whose existence is a political story in and of itself.) FIFA has both times offered to pay to rebuild the stadium. Last Monday FIFA, in a visit to the Gaza Strip, was also supposed to attend a game. The teams involved don’t appear to have been recorded, but it doesn’t really matter, because Israeli forces held up the FIFA delegation for so long that they missed the game.

So how in the world did Palestine qualify for the Asian Cup given all that? A now-defunct competition called the AFC Challenge Cup. Asia tiers its countries, and the clubs within them, based on each country’s level of development of the sport. For about a decade, there were three tiers: ‘developed’, ‘developing’, and ’emerging’. Developed and developing nations played in the Asian Cup, while emerging nations- like Palestine- were relegated to the Challenge Cup, where they would usually lose to ‘developing’ and even ‘developed’ nations that opted to play in the Challenge Cup instead. On the club level, developed nations played in the AFC Champions League, developing nations played in the AFC Cup, and emerging nations played in the President’s Cup. If you were in the emerging category, there was no opportunity to win your way out.

In 2009, though, a reform of the tiers took place. Now there are just two, mature and emerging. The President’s Cup was abolished, with countries there bumped up to the AFC Cup, where top-performing teams can play their way into the AFC Champions League. And on the national level, the Challenge Cup was phased out, with all nations now permitted to qualify for the Asian Cup.

There was one other wrinkle. The winner of the AFC Challenge Cup would gain entry into the Asian Cup. The 2008 and 2010 winners got into the 2011 Asian Cup, but those both wound up being teams from India and North Korea that had both moved down. The 2012 and 2014 winners, the final winners, would go to the 2015 Asian Cup. The 2012 winner was also North Korea, but they and all other nations that were not actually emerging were barred from the 2014 Challenge Cup, hosted by the Maldives, leaving the field open for one of the true minnows of Asia to get the opportunity that had been ripped out of their hands in all previous attempts. Palestine emerged victorious, defeating the Philippines 1-0 in the final.

The reward they have fought so hard and endured so much to obtain began with a date with Japan. Palestinian flags flooded the stands in Newcastle. And that’s about where the fairy tale stopped dead in its tracks. Japan was given a big fat meatball and ate it for lunch. The match ended 4-0; it was 3-0 by halftime.

But if you gazed at the crowd of Palestinians, cheering and waving through all four goals, the scoreline was clearly beside the point. They knew full well Japan was going to beat them senseless. Merely being in the field was enough. After all, how long will it be before they even get this far again?

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