Palestine bow out of Asian Cup after spirited display against Qatar

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Palestine’s coach hails side as ‘my champions’ after narrow 2-1 defeat to hosts and defending champions Qatar.

Al Khor, Qatar – In a match that saw two “home” teams face off at Al Bayt Stadium with huge support for the visitors, it was the form and the experience of hosts Qatar that helped them see off a spirited display from Palestine and book a place in the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup 2023 with a 2-1 win.

The defending champions went into the round-of-16 fixture on Monday under the weight of expectations of a passionate home crowd and on the back of an impressive display in the group stage.

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However, it was Palestine – playing in their first ever Asian Cup knockout match – who got off the blocks with wind in their sails and put early pressure on Qatar.

Playing in their white away kit, the visitors took advantage of a relatively slow Qatari start and launched waves of attacks on the Qatari goal.

In comparison, Qatar’s movement inside the Palestinian box was restricted – a plan by Palestine coach Makram Daboub that was executed to near perfection by his players.

“My players gave it everything they could and didn’t give them much space in the beginning,” Daboub said in his post-match press conference.

Palestine’s pressure and moves paid off in the 37th minute when Oday Dabbagh scored a lovely solo goal and joined his teammates in their signature “victory” celebration – crossing their arms and making the v sign with their fingers.

For a team that was swept away 4-1 by Iran in their opening game two weeks ago, the Fedayeen had come a long way to put one of the tournament favourites under pressure.

Palestine celebrate taking the lead through Dabbagh’s first goal of the game [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

However, their defence couldn’t do much to stop the home side’s captain, Hassan Al Haydos, from scoring an equaliser in the sixth minute of added time.

The reaction from the home crowd was a loud expression of relief and joy.

Akram Afif, a crowd favourite and the tournament’s leading goal scorer, turned the match on its head four minutes into the second half with a perfectly slotted penalty.

Qatar vs Palestine match – AFC Asian Cup 2023
Akif set up Qatar’s first goal and scored the second [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

For the rest of the match, Palestine tried to create chances, but none of them bore fruit.

The physical fatigue of travelling to various countries to train, the mental strain of the war back home and the emotional pressure of wanting to bring joy to their people was too much for Daboub’s men.

“They have been through a difficult time but were still willing to put on a good show for all Palestinians,” Daboub said.

“I couldn’t have asked for more from them. They have honoured Palestinian football and the people of Palestine. They are my champions.”

Qatar vs Palestine match – AFC Asian Cup 2023
So many fans in the stands in Al Kohr supported Palestine that it was as though the game had two home sides [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Their fans, who turned up at the venue in their thousands to support them one last time, said the team had already done “more than enough” to bring joy to the people in Gaza, who have endured nearly four months of war.

“Even if they hadn’t won any matches or scored any goals, we would have been proud of them,” Samar Ustaz, a Palestinian resident of Qatar, told Al Jazeera after the match.

“We have shown that nothing can break our spirit. Even when we are pushed to the brink, we stand up and fight back.”

Qatar vs Palestine match – AFC Asian Cup 2023
Palestine players applaud the fans after the match [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Yousef Ayman, another Palestine fan with family in Haifa, said everything the players showed was the embodiment of the Palestinian spirit.

“We can stand tall in the face of every challenge,” he said.

Once the match was over, the Palestinian team took a few moments to soak in the atmosphere, process their emotions and then walked up to their fans to applaud their support.

From their first match against Iran two weeks ago through their draw against the United Arab Emirates, an emotional win over Hong Kong and their first knockout match in the tournament’s history, the Palestinian flag was waved in its thousands, and the chants calling for Palestine’s freedom were heard loud and clear.

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