The Palestine national football team's head coach Makram Daboub takes some comfort – for now at least – that his players stuck in Gaza are safe.
The struggle to prepare his squad for the start of the 2026 World Cup qualification games is his secondary priority.
Daboub wanted to include Ibrahim Abuimeir, Khaled Al-Nabris, and Ahmed Al-Kayed in a training camp in Jordan ahead of the qualifiers, but they were unable to make it out of Gaza because of the Israel-Hamas war, now in its second month.
That is where influential Italian manager Arrigo Sacchi's words come true, that football is "the most important of the least important things in life" and the national team will play against Lebanon next Thursday and Australia on 21 November against a backdrop of Israel's offensive on Gaza.
“So far they are fine,” Daboub told The Associated Press. “Many of their relatives have died, however, as a result of the bombing.”
Two players from Gaza, Egypt-based Mohamed Saleh and Mahmoud Wadi, are expected to join the Palestinian team in Jordan.
“With the death and destruction in Gaza, the players are in a difficult psychological state,” Daboub added.
But for Susan Shalabi, the vice-president of the Palestine Football Association, there's no question that the players and the people want the games to go ahead.
“This is a people that wants to be heard and seen by the rest of the world, wants to live normally like everyone else, so people care about their national team,” Shalabi told AP. “It represents the yearning to be recognized as a free and sovereign nation.”
Palestine had initially been drawn to host Australia to start this round of qualifying, but the game has been shifted to a neutral venue in Kuwait.
Preparations have already been interrupted as players were unable to leave to participate in a tournament in Malaysia last month. Now the team is based in Jordan to be sure of being able to travel for games.
“We will do our best,” Daboub said. “Football is the most popular game in the world. It brings people together. We aspire to achieve good results and qualify to show the Palestinian identity and that this is a people who deserve life and love peace.”
Israel football's temporary home: Viktor Orban's village
Israel's national team is heading to a tiny Hungarian village as it prepares to play its remaining home games in the Euro 2024 qualifying tournament amidst safety concerns following a rise in anti-Semitic sentiments.
Israel will host “home” games against Switzerland next Wednesday and Romania three days later as it chases a qualifying place in the continental championship, which would be its first since joining the European soccer confederation UEFA in 1994.
It has a catch, though. The games will be played in an opulent stadium thought to be the pet project of a well-known football fanatic: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
The decision to bring the matches to Felcsut, a village of around 1,900 people where Orbán spent much of his childhood, reflects his deep political affinities with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Yacov Hadas-Handelsman, Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, acknowledged that the close relationship between Orbán and Netanyahu has played a role in bringing Israel’s team to Felcsut.
“We have a very good combination of personal connections and relations (and) sheer love of sports and football in the Hungarian government,” Hadas-Handelsman told The Associated Press.
Even before last month’s Hamas attacks in Israel, the leader of Hungary had long promoted his country as the safest in Europe for Jews.
Recently, Orbán has banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations in the wake of Israel’s bombing in the Gaza Strip and pointed to such protests in some Western European cities as further proof that his government has done a better job combating antisemitism than its Western counterparts.