Palestine Soccer Team Strives for World Cup Amid War in Gaza

Palestine players World Cup qualification

PERTH, Australia (AP) — Mohammed Rashid, once a forklift driver in a Chicago warehouse, now carries the hopes of his nation on the soccer field. Rashid, alongside his Palestine teammates, finds solace in their quest for World Cup qualification amidst the war in Gaza.

Despite the Israel-Hamas conflict now in its eighth month, Palestine has achieved an inspiring milestone by reaching the third round of Asia’s World Cup qualifiers for the first time.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Rashid stated in Perth on Monday, ahead of Palestine’s match against Australia. “We’re here for one cause and one goal. Whoever is on the team has to perform. There is no other way to it.”

Ranked 93rd globally, Palestine has never been this close to World Cup qualification through the Asian Football Confederation. With the 2026 tournament expanding to 48 teams and Asia’s allocation doubling to eight, Palestine’s dream seems within reach.

Palestine and Australia will clash at HBF Park on Tuesday to complete the Asian second round, with both teams advancing to the next stage in September.

“Of course, it’s a big dream,” Rashid said. “Everything is possible. There’s a lot of hard work that needs to be done before we get there.”

While team officials avoid politically charged topics, the players openly discuss Gaza’s devastation. According to the Gaza Health Ministry, over 36,700 Palestinians have been killed. Hamas and other militants caused around 1,200 deaths in an October 7 attack on Israel.

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“Playing gives us a chance to raise the name of Palestine to the whole world, and the World Cup is the biggest platform for this,” said Rashid, a defensive midfielder. “What’s happening affects all of us. You can’t help but be affected by it.”

Rashid played college soccer in Illinois before joining the Palestinian Premier League in 2018. Despite many countries not recognizing Palestine as a state, the Palestine Football Association has been a full FIFA member since 1998.

Known as Al Fida’i (The Warriors), Palestine has recently seen success at the regional level, conceding only one goal in five qualifying matches. They haven’t played on home soil since 2019, hosting games in Kuwait and Qatar, with players seeking safety and opportunities abroad.

“This is the hardest part,” said Rashid, who currently plays for Bali United in Indonesia. “The last time we played at home, it was a full house. People were climbing trees to watch the game. We’ve had 28 straight away games, which is rough. But we’re always playing for our people.”

While avoiding inflammatory remarks, the team’s existence remains a political statement. PFA president Jibril Rajoub was recently denied an Australian visa, a decision made independently by immigration authorities, according to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

Rashid and his teammates strive to push past such setbacks, providing a rallying cry for Palestinians. “When it comes to soccer, you try to get your head out of it,” Rashid said. “This is the only thing they’re watching, the only thing giving them hope. For us, this is a big motivation.”

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