It's three long years until the final in Rio, and some teams already have faced elimination games. For an ultimate long shot like Palestine, the World Cup is as much about political inclusion and global acceptance as it is about quixotic hopes of a title
The two mensit on the artificial turf in a West Bank soccer stadium and talk about the peculiar challenges of playing for the Palestinian national team. Murad Alyan, an Arab-Israeli striker from Jerusalem, is a scoring machine—43 goals in 41 league games last season, seven in eight for Palestine—but his coach has been threatening to bench him for the decisive World Cup qualifier two days later if he keeps reporting for work in his day job as a lab assistant at a public health center.
"The coach says, 'You can't go to work! You have to stay here with the team,'" Alyan, 33, says. "But I've had this job for 14 years. It's my main income. I can't afford to lose it." Newly married, Alyan had used vacation days to travel to Thailand with the team a few days earlier. And so, on the day before his date with World Cup destiny last week, Alyan put in a shift at the lab, then drove his dust-covered Honda Civic from Jerusalem to the Kalandia checkpoint, a gray, prisonlike crossing of gates and watchtowers. He waited in a traffic snarl, showed his I.D. to a machine-gun-wielding guard and inched into the West Bank, toward the stadium on the other side of the concrete wall.
The other man listens to the story with a wry smile. Abdelatif Bahdari, 27, a sturdy central defender from Gaza and Palestine's captain, knows all about complex crossings. In the past, Bahdari says, due to instability in the region, Gaza players would sneak through secret underground tunnels to reach Egypt and then join the Palestine team ("a big adventure," he says), but for the game in Thailand, Israel had given Bahdari his paperwork. The return leg against Thailand last Thursday would be just the second World Cup qualifier played by Palestine on home soil. In other places they might have called the showdown a do-or-die game. Bahdari does not. But it is much more than a soccer match. "Playing as a national team for Palestine is a perfect step in building the country," Bahdari says, "especially now that we have a home field. We're sending the message that we're not terrorists, we're human beings. We can be a part of this world."
In the 21st century the World Cup is a big-time event in the U.S., a mainstream attraction that draws TV audiences comparable to those for the World Series and the NBA Finals. But the World Cup isn't just a 32-nation tournament that takes place over the span of a month every four years. In fact, most countries call that event the World Cup finals to distinguish it from the marathon global qualifying campaign that lasts 29 months and involves more national teams than there are members of the United Nations. FIFA has 208 national associations, and 204 entered the Hydra-tentacled bracket for World Cup 2014. The first match was played on June 15 (Belize 5, Montserrat 2), and the tournament will end at the World Cup final on July 13, 2014, at the Maracan√£ stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
Only Brazil, as the host team, receives an automatic World Cup finals berth. The other 203 nations will play a total of 824 qualifying games on the Road to Rio, rallying their fans and venturing into hostile territory in far and away the planet's most expansive and competitive sporting saga. (The U.S. enters its 16-game regional qualifying process next June.) No single athletic event produces as many compelling stories involving nationalism and politics, society and Cinderella tales. You want a tasty matchup? Try the Battle of the Virgins, in which the U.S. Virgin Islands eliminated the British Virgin Islands last month. Volatility? Look no further than Iraq's defeat of Yemen, in which Iraq was deemed the safer venue—safe enough, at least, to stage a game in-country. Odd pairings in obscure locales? How about Myanmar at Mongolia?
Last Thursday, nearly three years before the start of Brazil 2014, 15 countries would be eliminated from the World Cup in games throughout Asia. No qualifier had more potential for drama last week than Palestine (world ranking: 166) versus Thailand (No. 119), with the winner advancing to the first group stage of Asian qualifying starting next month. "It's David versus Goliath," said Abdel Rahman Hamed, 22, the creator of the blog Football Palestine. "It would be amazing if we could take down Thailand. They're 47 places above us in the FIFA rankings. They have a professional league and a population of nearly 70 million" compared with roughly 4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestine team included two schoolteachers, a waterworks employee, more than a dozen other amateurs and a blond-haired American from Georgia with a Mohawk and a Southern drawl. So alluring was the potential that Hamed, a recent University of Toronto graduate with a Jordanian passport, had entered the West Bank for the first time in six years to visit relatives and see the game at the three-year-old Faisal Al-Husseini Stadium near Ramallah.
The Road to Rio has a few simple truths, one of which is this: You don't need to reach the World Cup finals to make history. Palestinians don't expect to raise the World Cup trophy anytime soon, and yet the stakes couldn't have been higher in the West Bank last Thursday. Thailand had won the first leg 1--0 at home five days earlier, a workable result for Palestine highlighted by goalkeeper Mohammed Shbair's last-minute penalty save. If the prolific Alyan could score an early goal to equalize in the return leg, who knows what might happen? "It would lift the soccer scene in Palestine," Alyan said last week as he finished up his workday at the Jerusalem health center. "We came to the well, but now we have to drink. For us, beating Thailand would be like winning the World Cup."
Omar Jarun doesn't fit most descriptions of Palestinians. He's 6'5". His blond hair is shaved into a Mohawk. He has blue eyes. When he talks, which is often, the man who grew up in Peachtree City, Ga., sounds more NASCAR than Nablus. His first trip to the West Bank, for a match against Afghanistan in June, was "a huge surprise," Jarun said last week at his hotel in Ramallah. "I thought it was going to be people on the streets shooting each other. My girlfriend thought I'd be kidnapped. But it's not like that at all. It's a peaceful country. People are very nice. Downtown Ramallah is no different from downtown Atlanta, minus the big buildings."
Born in Kuwait to a Jordanian-Palestinian father and an American mother, Jarun fled with his family at age seven when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. They settled in Austin, Texas, and later moved to Georgia, where his father, Belal, started a construction company. Omar spent eight years in the Atlanta-area youth soccer club that produced U.S. national-teamers Clint Mathis and Ricardo Clark, played his college ball at Memphis and Dayton and had just finished his second season with the second-tier Atlanta Silverbacks in 2007 when he got a call from a man who said he was a recruiter for the Palestine national team.
"I thought it was a fake," says Jarun, now a 27-year-old central defender. "I'd get crazy phone calls from Arabs all the time." His father checked out the recruiter and decided he was legit. The Jaruns flew on their own dime in '07 to Qatar, where Palestine played its first "home" qualifier for World Cup 2010. The game, played in Doha, was a disaster. Palestine lost 4--0 to Singapore and canceled the return leg. Omar's new teammates asked his father for money, which he gave them. In the four years since, Palestinian soccer has improved. There's now a semipro league and the small national stadium, built with funding from FIFA and the Palestinian National Authority. Jarun no longer has to pay his own way to fly from Poland, where he plays in the second division, and the Palestinian federation even gives him a small per diem.
That isn't to say it's extravagant. "In these small countries World Cup qualifying isn't glamorous at all," he says. "It's not the glitz of Chelsea or Real Madrid." After last week's qualifier in Thailand the team flew coach from Bangkok to Cairo to Amman and bused to Ramallah, where most of the players slept in crude dorm-style rooms at the stadium. Only on the night before Thursday's game did the team move to a modest hotel, but even then the players slept three to a room and left for the stadium at noon, six hours before kickoff, presumably so the federation could avoid a late-checkout fee.
Yet those challenges are minor compared with the ones the team endures while traveling in and out of the Palestinian territories, the borders of which are rigidly controlled by Israel. Two starters from the game in Thailand—attacking midfielder Mohammed Samara and right back Majed Abusidu—were refused entry into the West Bank and missed the return leg. As for Jarun, he said he finally had a meltdown with Israeli border officials. When he'd entered the West Bank for the first time in June, "they thought I was a beach-bum American," he said. "Then it completely changed when they saw my name: Omar Belal Jarun." He says he spent six hours answering inquiries about his family history to fill the officials' computer database but balked when they began asking the same questions during a two-hour stop at the Jordanian border last week. Finally, he says, a female official came out.
"I know this guy," she said. "He's not a terrorist."
"Well, thank you for clearing that up," Jarun replied, "that I'm not a terrorist because I'm Palestinian."
Rarely is anything simple in Israeli-Palestinian relations, and soccer is no different. (Israel belongs to the European confederation because many Arab nations refuse to play against them.) Yet while Jarun admits to frustrations over border interrogations, he's quick to add that he'd like to be a catalyst for positive change. "We're the new generation," he says. "I want there to be peace in this part of the world. I don't know what I can do besides playing football to show that Palestinians are normal people who aren't all going to blow up other people. It's a sensitive subject, but I'm not going to shy away from it. I'm sick of there being racism toward both sides, and it needs to stop."
For all the difficulties that come with playing for Palestine, Jarun says it's worth the effort. He likes his teammates. He appreciates the chance to play international soccer. He has connected with his roots. After the home qualifier in early July he visited his ancestral home in Tulkarem, where Jarun shot video of his grandfather's house and met nearly 200 family members who came to meet him. He also had a special audience with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, who thanked Jarun, posed for a photograph with him and gave him a small gold bar as a token of his appreciation.
On the eve of last week's big game, Jarun pondered the meaning of World Cup qualifying even when reaching Brazil 2014 was the longest of long shots. "You've got to keep competing for something that you'll probably never make," he said. "I love this sport. I'm playing for Palestine. I know football brings countries together. I never think: Why do I play, because we'll never make the World Cup? I believe we can make it. I believe in this team."
Do sports and politics mix? Should Palestinians push the legitimacy of their national aspirations through soccer? Jibril Rajoub believes so. The 57-year-old president of the Palestinian Football Association has brought more money than anyone else to Palestinian soccer since taking over in May 2008. Money from FIFA. Money from the Palestinian National Authority. The national stadium is Rajoub's doing. So is the growth of the national team and the creation of a women's soccer league. And so are the two giant billboards of his face that hang in the stadium, next to those of the late Yasser Arafat and Abbas and the heads of FIFA (Sepp Blatter) and the IOC (Jacques Rogge). In his previous career Rajoub led the once feared Preventive Security apparatus in the West Bank. He speaks slowly and, by turns, in a booming voice and a near whisper, like a Palestinian Al Pacino. He is a powerful man.
"What we're doing for our youth is part of our commitment to recharge the mental batteries toward peaceful means," he says one night in his office, in front of a giant painting of Arafat. "Toward coexistence, democracy, respect for human rights, freedom of expression. It's a statehood-building process."
Murad Alyan did it. Palestine's star striker got the early goal against Thailand, slipping through the middle and firing a bombazo of a leftfooted blast. The 11,500 people in Faisal Al-Husseini Stadium erupted. Palestinian flags waved. Chants rang. Men and women sang Alyan's name. There's no feeling in the world like scoring a big goal for your national team in front of an adoring home crowd. The aggregate score was deadlocked 1--1, and Alyan had a single thought: We're going through. Palestine, tiny Palestine, was going to be the early Cinderella story of World Cup qualifying.
But 27 minutes later Thailand sucked the sound out of the stadium. A gorgeous goal. An away goal, meaning Palestine would need two more of its own to advance. By the 87th minute fans were streaming toward the exits. Even Rajoub vacated his VIP seat, leaving the Thai FA president by himself. But could you believe it? Alyan scored again. His coworkers back at the health center would be proud: nine goals in nine national-team games! But it wasn't enough. Sometimes Goliath wins.
Nearly three years before a ball is kicked in Brazil, Palestine was out of the World Cup. "Good start, bad finish," said Jarun, who was bothered by the easygoing response of some teammates afterward. "This comes only once every four years, and they don't understand the implications of a game like today. But they did a good job on the field, so I can't blame 'em."
Palestine wasn't alone. By the time of last Saturday's World Cup preliminary draw in Rio, a globally televised event that determined qualifying matches across FIFA's six confederations, 32 nations comprising 29% of the world's population had already been eliminated. India was out. Pakistan and Mauritania and Aruba were out. East Timor? Done. Turks and Caicos? Done.
Back in the West Bank, Murad Alyan could only shake his head. In one week he had played two games, traveled to Thailand and back, put in three full shifts at his day job, trained with the team and scored two World Cup qualifying goals. Now his wife, Maali, was waiting for him at home in Jerusalem. "I am going to sleep for 24 hours!" he announced, using his first English of the week. "I am very tired."
Grant Wahl on new U.S. coach J√ºrgen Klinsmann and the World Cup draw at SI.com/soccer
"I WANT PEACE," SAYS JARUN. "I DON'T KNOW WHAT I CAN DO BESIDES PLAY FOOTBALL TO SHOW THAT PALESTINIANS ARE NORMAL PEOPLE."
THREE YEARS BEFORE A BALL IS KICKED IN BRAZIL, AND PALESTINE WAS OUT. SOMETIMES GOLIATH WINS.
THE PALESTINIAN quest was not the only significant happening in the early stages of Road to Rio. Other story lines:
BELIZE vs. MONTSERRAT
Home field advantage never came into play. The first leg was held in Trinidad because Montserrat, which was hit by a volcano in 2004, doesn't have a suitable stadium, and the second in Honduras after FIFA punished Belize for "severe governmental interference"—i.e., demanding electoral and financial transparency from its soccer federation.
SINGAPORE vs. MALAYSIA
Singapore's Tigers controversially employed five naturalized players in the starting XI, prompting fans of the rival Lions last Thursday to unfurl a sign reading ONE HUNDRED PERCENT MALAYSIANS, NO FOREIGNERS! Singapore won 6--4 on aggregate; all goals came from imports.
OMAN vs. MYANMAR
Trailing 2--0 on aggregate, Myanmar gave up two quick goals, prompting fans to bombard the pitch with water bottles, rocks and shoes. A member of the Oman coaching staff was struck with a projectile, and officials abandoned the tie after 40 minutes, giving Oman a 4--0 win.
Last Saturday in Rio matchups in the next round were set. Some of the most intriguing pairings are in Europe. Defending champion Spain was drawn alongside 2006 finalist France in Group I, but the tension there will be nothing compared with that in Group A, where Serbia and Croatia—archrivals since the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s—face each other. "The national associations have a good relationship," said Serbia manager Vladimir Petrovic, "but the people don't."
Photograph by AMIT SHABI
DREAMING BIG More than 11,000 fans packed the West Bank stadium to see Palestine take on a Thailand team that is 47 places higher in the FIFA world rankings.
Photographs by AMIT SHABI
PEACHY Georgia-bred defender Jarun occasionally joined the attack against Thailand, to the delight of Palestinian fans enjoying a rare home game.
Photographs by AMIT SHABI
MOONLIGHTER When he wasn't working as a lab assistant at a public health center, 33-year-old newlywed Alyan was on the field last week, where he scored two goals in two games.