Palestinian men's soccer team unites amid Israel-Hamas war

Mahmoud Abu Warda, Oday Dabbagh and Mohammed Rashid of Palestine sing the national anthem prior to an AFC Asian Cup match in January. Markus Gilliar/Getty Images

DOHA, Qatar -- She introduces herself by saying she has eight martyrs in her family.

Rihad Mokdad is 56 and originally from Gaza, and she is walking to a soccer game with her daughter and granddaughters. It is a cool, misty night in the desert, and she, like the team, is a thousand miles from home. She has spent this January day, like most of her days since October, watching the news from Gaza on Al Jazeera.

What she wants tonight is to feel Palestinian. In this Qatari city, with its Vegas-like manufactured glitz, a pristine creation of oil money, the Palestinian men's national soccer team is essentially a second home squad in the AFC Asian Cup tournament. The team is known as Al Fida'i, "the warriors," and is the only team with a cause every other Arab and Muslim nation here supports.

For this team and its followers, there is no separation between sport and politics. Its existence is a statement. Its players, who learned their former Olympic coach, Hani Al-Masdar, was killed in an Israeli air strike days before they arrived here, know they are representatives of the Palestinian desire for independence, one they say they embrace wholeheartedly.

"We talk about how different we are," Mousa Farawi, a 25-year-old Jerusalem-born defender, says through an interpreter. Each player's first obligation, he says, is to represent the area he comes from. "Every one of us represents something. The responsibility is coming from a big suffering we have. In the moment, we stop playing for ourselves; we're playing for the people.

"Every single player, every single staff, every single administrator represents Palestine and the sufferings of Palestine."

There are 211 FIFA member federations, but there is no other team like this. There also is no other country like theirs: recognized by only part of the world, split between two territories with two rival governments. Like most teams, the Palestinians essentially are supervised by the governments. In this case, that means Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

After years of lingering in the lower 50% of FIFA's rankings, the team is currently ranked 97th and has a legitimate shot at making the World Cup for the first time in 2026, when the field expands to 48 teams. The team plays the first of two home-and-home qualifiers against Bangladesh on Thursday, with the second game to follow in Bangladesh on Tuesday. Palestine is heavily favored over the 183rd-ranked Bangladesh team. For Palestine, Thursday's home game is in Kuwait City. It is impossible to play at their home stadium in the West Bank.

"The Palestinian national team is like a family. We don't have facilities like other national teams, we need to play outside our country when we're playing [home] games," says Yaser Hamed, a 26-year-old defender. Hamed, speaking in English, was raised in Spain, where his Palestinian father met his Basque mother while studying medicine. Both are physicians. His father's entire family is in Gaza, he says.

"When we see the flag -- the Palestinian flag -- everywhere in the stadiums, in the balconies, in the streets, it means something. It means that Palestine deserves the best; deserves to be free, deserves safety. It's not just about the Palestinian people, it's all the human beings and all around the world."

The team knows that its success, and the possibility of qualifying for the World Cup, have carried a new weight since the start of the war.

"The beating spirit of Palestine. Hope," Farawi says. "It's a very, very heavy burden."

He says he does not want to talk about "politics." It's a phrase other players repeat. By that they generally mean commenting on the specifics of the war, the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that provoked it, or anything that is beyond their control. But politics is relative. There is almost nothing a Palestinian can say about being Palestinian that isn't political to somebody. Even calling one's country "Palestine."

"When I say I'm from Palestine, I'm not making a political statement, I'm making a statement of fact. But I think some people see it as you being kind of even a little bit aggressive," says Bassil Mikdadi, an independent journalist and the founder of FootballPalestine.com. "And, look, this isn't something by choice. I would like to be separated from the politics sometimes. In fact, most of the time. It's just, someone asks me where I'm from, the answer is Palestine. It's where I'm from, it's where my parents grew up, it's where my grandparents were born. It's where their parents were born, and so on, for as long as my family can remember. So, you want to be separated from the politics; the reality is you can't."

He would also love to talk about football for once with an American or British journalist -- about the stunning quickness of undersized goalkeeper Rami Hamadi, or the leadership of defender Musab Al-Battat.

But the visiting home team is what fans here in Doha, Palestinian or not, are embracing. There are places in the Palestinian world to rally. This is one of them.

Over 10 days during the Asian Cup in January a question is repeated: What is the message this team sends to the world? The answers are never about sport. They are about existence and belonging.

Before the UAE game, Mokdad, the Palestinian mother and grandmother, answers the question about the team's message to the world without hesitation: "That this is not the Jews' land, it is our land."

She is thanked for her time. She smiles broadly and says, "Thank you. I hope we meet again in Jerusalem."

Before another game, two 16-year-old Palestinian boys, Ahmad Hammad and Abdalla Hammo, who have been raised in Doha and speak fluent English, are decked in Palestine T-shirts. The team, Hammo says, "raises awareness because then we can get on the news, and it means we're like normal people -- we can play football and stuff."

A few yards from them, Khawla Saleh is with her three sons, two of them twins who are going to turn 8 in a few days. She says her family is from Gaza and they have lived in Doha for several years now. The war inspired them to come to the game and cheer for the team with other Palestinians.

She says the message of the team is, "Please stop the war."

Her sons are asked the same questions. Majdi, one of the twins, answers shyly, in halting English: "The countries that support Israel shall die forever." It's hard to make out what he said, and he's asked to repeat it.

His mother responds, saying, "That we want peace."

But Majdi answers again, repeating verbatim: "The countries that support Israel shall die forever."

His mother nods.

THERE IS NOT a long tradition of Palestinian international soccer. The sport itself is by far the most popular among Palestinians, but even before the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the displacement of Palestinians -- an event known in Arabic as the "nakba," or, "catastrophe" -- the Palestinian team that was created under British rule was always Jewish. That was the case when Mandatory Palestine, as the territory was then known, played in qualifiers for the 1934 and 1938 FIFA World Cups, the only times any Palestinian team appeared. (Israel has played under its own flag since 1948.)

An all-Arab team was established in 1931, also under the name of Palestine, but while the team competed for decades in the Pan-Arab Games, it was not recognized outside of the region. Currently 139 countries recognize Palestine as a state. The United States, Israel, the United Kingdom and most Western nations do not.

Mikdadi, the founder of FootballPalestine.com, says that in 1994, when he was 8, he was fascinated by the talk he heard about the World Cup. He says he asked his father, "Does Palestine have a team, or is that one of those things where we don't exist?"

At the time, they did not. That changed in 1998, when FIFA recognized Palestine as a full member. The young team surprised many in 1999 when it finished third in the Pan-Arab Games. Older Palestinians had no tradition of rooting for a national team, Mikdadi says, and those who were soccer fans tended to follow Barcelona or Real Madrid, and every four years lined up behind some country during World Cup play.

"I think that is what sort of made having a national team so exciting for me was that I am part of a generation that remembers the times where we didn't have one," the 37-year-old Mikdadi says. "And the interesting thing, after doing Football Palestine for like 15 years is that now I have conversations with people in their 20s and that's not the case. They don't know. They don't know a time when there wasn't a Palestinian national team."

Mikdadi is Palestinian but grew up around the world as his parents moved for business. He speaks English like an American and Arabic like a Palestinian, lives in Europe and has a day job in the tech world. The website is a labor of love, and he is able to fund it, and his limited travel, through paid subscriptions. (He was able to attend the group stage of the Asian Cup. He had to leave for a tech conference in Bangkok, then returned for the knockout rounds. He is not traveling to this month's two World Cup qualifiers against Bangladesh.)

The team is one of the few things Palestinians can look at and say is their own, that lets people see their home listed along with the other countries of the world.

"The team is called 'Palestine.' It's not called 'Palestinian Territories,' it's not called 'the team of West Bank and Gaza.' It's called Palestine, and it's made up of players that come from all over historic Palestine," Mikdadi says. "You have players that are from Gaza. You have players that are from the West Bank. You have players that are from Jerusalem. You have players that are from inside the Green Line [separating the territories from Israel] and they hold Israeli citizenship. You have players that come to represent Palestine from the diaspora. So, you know, there's the Palestinian story for the past 76 years."

The Palestinian people are physically divided between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. They also are separated by the bitterly divided parties that lead the two territories: Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the United States and other Western nations, calls for Palestinian control of all the land Israel currently controls, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The West Bank is run by the Palestinian Authority, the descendant of the PLO. It is one more reason players don't want to discuss "politics": Internal Palestinian politics can be just as fraught.

The team has roots in both groups, however, and officials say the team unites them.

The head of the Palestinian Football Association is Jibril Rajoub, who spent much of his youth in Israeli prisons on terrorism charges and was sentenced to life for throwing a grenade at an Israeli bus in 1970. He was part of a prisoner exchange in 1985. Now, at 74, he is considered a potential successor to 88-year-old Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Rajoub has long been a leader in the Fatah party of the PLO, a group that was once considered a terrorist organization by the West and is now accused by some Palestinians of collaborating with Israel.

Rajoub oversees the PFA as an organization and all soccer in the West Bank. The head of soccer in the Gaza Strip, however, is Abd al-Salam Haniyeh, the son of Ismail Haniyeh. Ismail Haniyeh is the head of Hamas.

"The players are the noblest for the Palestinian cause," the younger Haniyeh says in an interview with an ESPN reporter at a Doha hotel lounge, speaking in Arabic through an interpreter. "The player, he feels like he holds the cause of humanity. It is a message to the world that we love the Palestinian state."

He says players are chosen for the team not only for their skill, but for their commitment to the cause. They are expected to be ambassadors. But, that said, a mediocre player who is politically passionate would not be chosen over one with better skills.

"We want to win," he says.

Haniyeh lives in Gaza but says he came to Doha four days before the war started for a medical procedure and got stuck. He says his wife and children are still there and he frequently has trouble reaching them. At the time, in January, he says four of his siblings are not accounted for. He scrolls through his phone, showing pictures of former players and coaches who have been killed since the war started. He shows the sites of stadiums and fields that have been destroyed by bombs, the stadiums that have been converted by Israeli troops into prisons.

The conversation turns back to the team and the reporter casually mentions the fact, which is historically undisputed, that the original teams that competed internationally as Palestine were Jewish. Haniyeh shakes his head.

"This is fake. The Israelis say these claims. It's not true," he says. "They think they own the land."

"We have no issue as Palestinians with the Jewish," he continues, "but we have an issue with those who are occupying our land. We have Jewish [supporters] around the world and they support the cause and they hold the Palestinian flag around the world. Our problem is not with the Jewish as a cause, it's the occupiers. Of course, if my brother came and took my land, my house, of course I'm going to kick him out. And he's my brother. Would you allow your brother to kick you outside your house?"

On the television at the end of the lounge, Al Jazeera is reporting that several youths were killed in an Israeli air strike.

Haniyeh tells the reporter what several Palestinians say that week, that the real power behind the war is President Joe Biden, and he could end the war immediately if he decided to withdraw U.S. support for Israel.

On Oct. 7, Hamas militants attacked Israel, killing roughly 1,200 people and kidnapping more than 240. More than 100 remain in captivity, although it is not known whether all are alive. In response to the attack, Israel launched a campaign in the Gaza Strip to eradicate Hamas as an organization, killing more than 30,000 people to date.

The war, and discussion of it, is never far from any conversation in Doha. Fans around the world might watch the games when they're on, Mikdadi says, and they might be happy for a while when the team wins. But then televisions are switched back to Al Jazeera, and everyone's attention returns to Gaza.

For much of the team's existence, Mikdadi says, it has been treated by rival Arab or Muslim nations the way any regional team would, with a familial respect. The war changed that. During the game against Iran, when Iran had the game well in hand, even Iranian fans were cheering for Palestine to score.

The crowds heading into the stadiums during Palestinian games were seas of Palestinian flags, scarves and the familiar checkered keffiyeh head scarf. It was particularly notable before the game against UAE. Dubai is about as far from here as St. Louis is from Kansas City, but nearly every flag in sight is Palestinian. (The UAE flag is similar, but the easy giveaway is the red border on the Palestinian version, a triangle with a sharp point.)

Many fans with Palestinian paraphernalia say they are from Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Qatar. Some are from East Asia, drawn to Doha by the teams from China, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea, but say they have come to tonight's game against UAE as a way to support the Palestinian people.

The team takes the field to the song "Ana Dammi Falastini" -- "My blood is Palestinian" -- a pulsing pop anthem that has become a standard at Palestinian weddings and other events.

When the Palestinian national anthem, "Fida'i," is played before the game, the entire stadium cheers. Arabic chants of "Free Palestine!" come from the multinational crowd, even during a minute of silence for the dead in Gaza.

"It was the best moment of the Asian Cup," says Hamed, the Palestinian-Spanish defender. "Not only the Palestinian people but all the other nationalities. The Iran fans, they were supporting; the Qatar fans, they were supporting. It was amazing because football is important, but, in that case, football is the second thing. This is the most important thing in the world: One country to be free, to be safe. This is more important than football."

Back in the lounge of the Intercontinental Hotel, where the team is staying, the game is on a movie theater-sized screen. Employees are wearing the jerseys of their own nationalities -- Qatar, Lebanon, Iraq -- but all have Palestinian scarves or the keffiyeh on their heads or around their shoulders. On the walls are cutouts and framed photos of watermelons, for decades a subversive symbol of Palestinian resistance; a cut watermelon reveals the same colors as the Palestinian flag, which at times has been banned by Israeli authorities.

The game is tense. UAE scores first in the 21st minute, but Palestine is pressing the action and has far more shots on goal.

During halftime, the sound of the Arabic broadcast is turned down. PA speakers blast "Ana Dammi Falastini" and much of the international crowd there sings along.

In the second half, UAE commits an own goal and the game is equalized. Palestine is energized by the goal and dominates, but misses chance after chance. The most agonizing is a saved penalty kick by Tamer Seyam.

In the 89th minute, the game still tied, the broadcast announcer makes no pretense of his preference. "For the sake of history, we want Palestine to win," he says in Arabic.

The game ends in a draw. Palestine had possession for 65% of the game and outshot UAE 24 to 5, with 16 corner kicks to UAE's one.

After the game, though, "Ana Dammi Falastini" is blasted again, and the staff leads a small parade through the lounge, with children joining the procession and waiving Palestinian flags. Everyone here tonight is Palestinian.

A COUPLE OF weeks before the Asian Cup tournament, a Palestinian player reached over WhatsApp writes that he's eager to speak with an ESPN reporter when they're both in Doha.

While still in the United States, the reporter meets the man in charge of media relations for the team, Ahmed Rajoub, over a video call. He is the nephew of Jibril Rajoub, the PFA president. Ahmed Rajoub says through an interpreter he is honored that ESPN wants to do a story on the team. He will try to arrange an interview with his uncle and he will make anyone connected to the team available.

A week or so later, in the lobby of the team hotel in Doha, Rajoub introduces the reporter to several team officials, all of whom say they are enthusiastic about reaching an American audience. The say they do not trust most American outlets, which they see as pro-Zionist. Rajoub says he will arrange times for those interviews in the coming days. He introduces the reporter to Farawi, the defender from Jerusalem, who sits down in the lobby for an hour-long interview.

While Farawi is speaking, a TV analyst who travels with the team, Mohammad Tartir, sits down and interjects himself into the conversation.

"We came here to tell the world we want to live. Our message is not death, our message is we want to live," Tartir says. "If we hadn't been here, the BBC won't be here, you won't be here -- there won't be anyone to listen to us. We're ambassadors for this cause."

After the interview with Farawi ends and the player leaves, Tartir squats next to the reporter and puts his hand on his shoulder and speaks passionately about how important it is that ESPN is here to report their story. The stories about atrocities committed by Hamas on Oct. 7, he says, are lies, Israeli propaganda. The team needs the world to hear their truth.

Rajoub arranges for the reporter to attend a team practice and says he will arrange more interviews with players the next day.

The next morning, Rajoub tells the interpreter there will be no more interviews with players because the Farawi interview took too long. Later that night, meeting the reporter again in the lobby, Rajoub backs off the threat and says not to worry; the team wants the players to focus on soccer but will make them available in a couple of days, after the last group stage match against Hong Kong.

On the morning after that game, the reporter sends a WhatsApp message to the player who originally agreed to speak, asking if they can finally meet. The player agrees and says, "Sorry brother we been under a lot of pressure and couldn't speak to journalists."

He says he can meet later in the day and will reach out after the team makes a visit to a local hospital where some of the wounded from Gaza have been taken.

A short time later, when the reporter is not present, Rajoub approaches the interpreter.

"Tell your friend, 'Bye-bye,'" he tells her in Arabic.

He flashes his phone and shows her what appears to be a post under the X account of @tjquinnespn that cheers on Israel's campaign in Gaza. The interpreter asks to see it again, but Rajoub puts the phone away. No such post ever existed. It is a fabrication.

The interpreter protests and says the post cannot be real and repeatedly asks Rajoub to forward it. He does not. He goes on to say that if there's even a 1% chance the post is real, the team cannot take the chance of dealing with ESPN. He goes on to say they've seen statements from ESPN and its parent company, Disney, that seemed to support Israel in the war.

Tartir, the commentator, tells her that ESPN cannot be trusted because Disney, the network's parent company, is controlled by Zionists.

The player who originally agreed to speak to the reporter, blocks him on WhatsApp.

WHEN THE WAR began, the team had to decide whether to compete in the Asian Cup. Several players in Gaza were not given permission by Israel to leave, and the team was torn over whether it was appropriate to play while thousands were dying in Gaza. But ultimately they decided the best thing they could do for fellow Palestinians was to play.

"We are professional players, we are a national team, so we need to show all the world that even if the situation is not good, we go, we play, we defend Palestine," says Hamed. "The best option is to play, because we show the world that Palestine is here, we can defend, we put our boys in the field."

That doesn't mean playing was easy.

"In the beginning of this [war] it was really super hard. Always, my mind was there," Farawi says. "Now we have to train our minds to be grounded because we want the people to be happy. The message is to play and to please the people. Honestly, it's hard. My mind is a bit distracted."

In the final group game against Hong Kong, Palestine wins 3-0 and for the first time in its history advances to the round of 16 in the Asian Cup. The team loses its next game to eventual champion Qatar, but advancing is a massive accomplishment.

"We made history that day," Hamed says later. "We received many messages -- even people in Gaza were so happy about that. They are suffering there and even they were happy about that."

On March 11, Mohammed Barakat, a former national team player and teammate to some of the current players, was killed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza. A video he recorded shortly before his death, in which he says goodbye to his parents, his wife and his children over the sound of explosions in the background, goes viral in the Arabic-speaking world.

Hamed says he did not know Barakat, but knew of him and asked his teammates about him. It's gutting to the team, but there is already more death in Gaza than they can comprehend. If the team can keep competing and appear in its first World Cup, he says, its presence will be a way to keep the idea of their country alive.

"I want to say, don't stop talking about Palestine," he says. "Because we need more and more people around the world if we want to finally stop everything. All the war. Everything."

Hwaida Saad contributed to this report.