Palestine’s run to the 2014 World Cup came to an end Thursday evening after a 2-2 draw with Thailand at Faisal Husseini Stadium in Al-Aram. Despite a spirited effort that earned them a tie in this physical affair, the Palestinians were ousted from the tournament by a 3-2 aggregate score in favor of the Thai following a 1-0 loss in Thailand last week in the two-game, home and home, series.
As is often the case, however, the score does not begin to tell the true story of the contest, both on and off the field.
From a football (soccer) standpoint, the 2-2 omits the entire character of the game, which was fascinating even when one looks beyond the obvious implications for the Palestinians as a people. The game was marked by long periods of Thai control and superior possession interspersed with shorter spans where the passion, pride, and hard work of the Palestinian players unnerved their generally composed opponent. In the end, Thailand’s superior organization and technical skill was too much for the Palestinian side whose greatest weapons were the spirit of its fans and enthusiasm in representing its country, rather than its football talent.
From a social perspective, there is no way to quantify the value of this match to the Palestinians and to their confidence as a people who have had few occasions to celebrate in recent memory. The 11,500 loyal supporters voiced their support for their country with such immensity that, at times, it felt as if the attendance were five times that number. The continuous chant of “Palestine, clap, clap, clap, Palestine, clap, clap, clap”, at the surface, was a desperate urging for the Palestine players to represent their country well and bring glory to a nation constantly perceived in a negative light. Beneath the surface, it was an affirmation of the Palestinians as a collective people. The chants said that, despite continuous threats to their land and attacks on their pride under Israeli occupation, they refuse to be embarrassed and forget who they are.
This considerable pride seemed to swell as the game went on, gaining confidence with every chant, as the people first remembered, and then reveled in having their own collective, positive, identity that was completely separate from Israel and the occupation. For many occupants of the West Bank, gathering en masse to wave their nation’s flag has usually meant conflict and resistance. The concept of gathering together and channeling their nationalistic and ethnic pride in a wholly positive and peaceful way was something that they had never known.
The euphoria that this notion awakened within the crowd simultaneously spawned a fascinating side-affect: awareness amongst the people as to the responsibility that goes hand in hand with such opportunities. When the game appeared to be moving away from the Palestinians, several members of the crowd began negative chants and, towards the end of the game, when the result was inevitable, several fans even threw water bottles onto the field towards the Thai players. In each instance the crowd, in one of those odd circumstances where a large group is able to collectively perceive what is at stake far more than any individual, united to loudly and fiercely condemn those individuals. Each time this negative behavior began, I, unfairly, had horrible visions of the crowd turning to the collective unrest that the Israeli government had imagined when they prevented international matches from being played on Palestinian soil in the past. And yet the crowd consistently chose to stop, rather than join, this behavior, unwilling to mar the positive energy, sending a message that the stereotype that Palestinians are by nature immature and uncivilized must be eradicated.
In the end, the Palestinians lost...again. Yet for these hard-luck people, it is the manner in which they lost that proved remarkable. They came hopeful, despite the odds stacked against them, on and off the field. They cheered passionately and positively for their country despite not even having a country of their own. They played fearlessly and energetically despite inferior ability. And, by far the most significant point, they lost with grace and class despite the frustration that losing has become all too familiar.