Asian Cup: We are playing for Gaza, says Palestine's Saleh

Days before the start of the Asian Cup in Qatar, Saleh was told that his uncle, his aunt and their children had been killed in the conflict

By AFP

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Palestine's defender Mohammed Saleh and Iran forward Sardar Azmoun vie for the ball during the Asian Cup match. — AFP
Palestine's defender Mohammed Saleh and Iran forward Sardar Azmoun vie for the ball during the Asian Cup match. — AFP

Published: Mon 15 Jan 2024, 10:00 PM

As the Palestinian anthem rang out before their Asian Cup opener against Iran, defender Mohammed Saleh's thoughts turned to his life in Gaza and his family trapped under Israeli bombardment.

Saleh had not heard from his family in two days as he took to the pitch in Doha's Education City Stadium on Sunday in front of 27,619 fans.

"They are living in a tent on open land... May God help them," he said after the match, explaining that his home in Gaza City had been destroyed and his family pushed from house to house during over 100 days of fighting in the Palestinian territory.

Days before the start of the tournament in Qatar, Saleh was told that his uncle, his aunt and their children had been killed in the conflict.

"Today my family is subjected to a war of extermination," Saleh, 30, said.

The war in Gaza was sparked on October 7, when Hamas launched an attack in Israel, killing about 1,140 people and abducting around 250 others, 132 of whom remain in Gaza, according to Israeli officials.

In retaliation, Israel vowed to destroy Hamas and launched a relentless military assault on Gaza that has killed more than 24,000 people in the Palestinian territory, most of them women and children, according to Gaza's health ministry.

"We play football for them... for Gaza... for our cause," Saleh said.

Palestinian Football Association President Jibril Rajoub told AFP it was inevitable the war would affect players.

"There are players whose families were martyred while they were in the camp, but we are fighters and this is the Palestinian spirit, loaded with patriotism," he said.

"This team is the noblest symbol of our national identity, and this team is for all Palestinians," he said.

The bloody conflict -- which has precipitated a humanitarian catastrophe for the 2.4 million people in besieged Gaza, and reduced much of the territory to rubble -- loomed large over Sunday's match.

The game began with a moment's silence for the Palestinian victims of the war, with fans from across the Middle East and beyond wrapped in Palestinian flags and black-and-white keffiyeh scarves.

The stadium erupted when Palestine scored their only goal of the game just before half-time.

Iran, who are among the favourites to win the Asian tournament, went on to beat Palestine 4-1.

Saleh wiped tears from his eyes when he thought of the missed opportunity of a victory, which might have offered some joy to Palestinian children.

"We tell the children... sorry, we are sorry for the defeat," Saleh said.

The Palestinian team have been forced to play and train overseas in the lead-up to their third Asian Cup.

Saleh said despite the distance from the conflict, he knows well the dangers Palestinians face, after living through conflicts in Gaza in 2008, 2012 and 2014.

"There was a hair between us and death," he said.

The Gazan footballer, who has played for a string of clubs in Egypt, most recently Alexandria's Al-Ittihad, learned the game on the Palestinian territory's Mediterranean coastline.

Yarmouk Stadium, where he played in Gaza City, has been "turned into a camp for the families of our loved ones", he said.

Saleh said Palestine's focus would now turn to their upcoming match against the UAE.

"Victory over the Emirates will be the key to qualifying, and we will play to win and dedicate it to the martyrs," he said.

"Against Iran... we started with a mistake, and all we have to do is win, and God willing, we will qualify," he added.

Saleh said his team had been buoyed by the international support in the stadium on Sunday.

"Palestine needs everyone... every person with humanity, must remain supportive of the Palestinian cause," he said.


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