Palestine enter Asian Cup 2023 knockouts with emphatic win over Hong Kong

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Doha, Qatar – Palestine started their last group match of the AFC Asian Cup 2023 with their hopes of qualifying for the next round hanging by a thread, but ended it with an emphatic 3-0 win over Hong Kong and by sealing a last-16 spot.

The compact Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium turned into a Palestinian den on Tuesday night as the Fedayeen roared into the knockout stage of the tournament.

When the last two games of group C got under way at 6pm, Palestine were trailing Iran, who had sealed their spot as group leaders, and second-placed United Arab Emirates (UAE) on points and goal difference.

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Palestine’s supporters were hopeful but not entirely confident of securing a result that would bring them in contention for a last-16 spot. At full-time, they were in a state of disbelief at how their team turned their fortunes around.

Some, like Linah al-Fatah, had faith in their team.

“It says a lot about our determination, self-belief and faith in God [as Palestinian people] that we have bounced back in the tournament in this manner,” she told Al Jazeera after the match.

According to Palestine’s captain Musab Al-Battat, it was a performance that showed the world that his team is among the best in the continent.

“We wanted to deliver a message to the world that we have a right to participate in every major football tournament, and not just for the sake of participation, but to show our skills,” Al-Battats aid in his passionate post-match news conference.

“We deserve to be here.”

The captain said his team came into the tournament with a “clear objective” of putting a smile on the faces of their supporters.

The supporters, in turn, helped the players pick themselves up after a crushing defeat in their opening match against Iran nine days ago.

Their second match, against the UAE, saw an improved performance that was vociferously backed by a partisan crowd.

Last week’s 1-1 draw against their regional rivals was the stepping stone in their progress and the win against Hong Kong sealed their reputation as a team that cannot be brushed aside.

For their part, Hong Kong began the match brightly as their group of 500 travelling supporters made their presence felt from the one stand that they occupied.

Dressed in red and carrying their banners from all the way back home, the fans arrived and settled in long before kickoff and before the local Palestinian supporters took their seats.

However, once the match kicked off it was clear that their team was under pressure.

Palestine relentlessly attacked the Hong Kong goal with a strong forward line, and reaped the reward with three goals.

Every Palestinian attack was backed with a crescendo of noise.

Different groups of Palestinian fans took turns in chanting pro-Palestine slogans and calling for freedom.

Their captain, Al-Battat, acknowledged the support after the match.

“The thousands of fans in Qatar and the millions of displaced Palestinians around the world are our number one motivation,” he said with a steely look.

His team are nearly certain to face hosts, holders and favourites Qatar in their round-of-16 tie.

The prospect may be daunting but if there is one thing Palestine have shown in the 12 days of this tournament and the 109 days of the war in Gaza, they will not give up without a fight.

“We have faced every challenge with determination and we are not going to stop now.”

For their Gaza-born defender Mahmoud Saleh, the full-time whistle brought a gush of emotions.

The number five fell to the ground and buried his face in the grass as he cried uncontrollably. When he was finally pulled up on his feet by his teammates, Saleh pulled his shirt over his face as he sobbed.

Saleh is one of the few players from Gaza who are part of the current squad, and has spoken of the difficulties of playing and training while not being able to hear about his family’s safety amid the war.

The win gives Saleh, Al-Battat and their teammates another chance of ensuring the Palestinian anthem is played in the stadium, the Palestinian flag is waved by thousands and the Palestinian spirit is displayed for the world to see.

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