Hundreds of fans, including women and children, gathered at a large venue in Gaza City to watch their national team on a giant screen take on the title holders of Asia’s biggest football tournament play in a country that does not recognise them.
An eighth minute goal for Japan, scored by Yasuhito Endo, did not dampen spirits as drums continued to be heard, while fans called out the names of players and their team ‘Palestine’.
Goalkeeper Ramzi Saleh, who said before kick-off he wanted to use the tournament to promote his homeland, and the skilful forward Ashraf Al-Fawaghra received the bulk of the cheers.
Palestinians call their team ‘Al-Fedayi’ which means the one who sacrifices life for the sake of the homeland.
Japan predictably added further goals but still the party atmosphere flowed, with those in Gaza seeing Palestinian flags being waved by singing supporters inside the Newcastle Stadium.
“Regardless of the result we are very proud of our team, our players, who are flying the flag of Palestine in such international contests,” said Ali Abu Khalil, a high school student.
“Today we do not have the capability and the resources to compete but one day we will gain the way and the talent to win contests,” said the boy, wearing a Palestinian flag on his shoulders and surrounded by a group of friends.
Youth danced to the rhythm of the drum and national music in a large covered hall, the smoke of cigarettes clouding over those in attendance.
In a place torn apart by political differences, the Gaza Strip, home to 1.8 million people, sport represents a common source of entertainment and cafes get usually packed of people during football matches, especially the English Premier League and Spanish La Liga.
The national team are also keenly followed and have made great strides since being recognised by FIFA in 1998.
Last year they won the AFC Challenge Cup to qualify for the 16-team Asian Cup in Australia despite difficulties in arranging training camps, matches or even gathering their best players.
The Palestinians say that Israel, which controls coming and going from Gaza and the West Bank, has been restricting the movement of Palestinian athletes and have urged FIFA to step in and give out sanctions.
Israel cites security concerns for restricting movement between Gaza, controlled by the Islamist group Hamas, and the West Bank, where the Palestinians have limited self-rule.
Abdel-Salam Haniyeh, member of the Palestinian Higher Council of Youth and Sports, watched on with the hundreds in Gaza as the team, ranked 115th in the world by FIFA, fought on.
“We have lost to Japan, the strongest team in Asia and one of the world’s best football teams therefore, we can’t blame our brave players,” Haniyeh told Reuters.
“Our participation was not only of sport nature, it has also a political nature, the playing of the national anthem of Palestine and flying of the Palestinian flag is a source of pride for every Palestinian.”
Next up is a match against Jordan in Melbourne on Friday.
(Writing by Patrick Johnston; editing by Sudipto Ganguly)