Thursday July 28th, 2011

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- You might be surprised to see the terms hipster vibe and Palestinian territories in the same sentence, but perhaps it's time to reconsider. The New York Times travel section featured a recent piece on the emerging scene in Ramallah, and on Tuesday night I met up for drinks in a fancy new hotel here with Abdel Rahman Hamed, a cosmopolitan 22-year-old who created an excellent English-language blog devoted to the Palestine national soccer team.

Why are we here? Simple: It's the biggest game in the short history of the Palestine team. Even though the next World Cup is three years away, the qualifying campaign has already started. A total of 203 national teams entered the competition for 31 spots at World Cup 2014 -- Brazil gets an automatic berth as host -- and on Thursday the field will be trimmed from 190 to 175 in 15 elimination games throughout Asia.

And if you don't think these matches matter to the fans of the teams involved, well, think again. National pride is at stake, after all.

The most intriguing game of the day is here: Palestine vs. Thailand. It's only the second home World Cup qualifier ever for Palestine, which became an official member of FIFA in 1998 and three years ago built a quaint little stadium just a few yards away from the wall separating the West Bank from East Jerusalem.

If Palestine can pull off the upset, the team known as Al-Fursan (The Knights) will become the early Cinderella of World Cup qualifying. "It's David vs. Goliath," as the blogger Hamed, who goes by the nickname Aboud, told me. "It would be amazing if we could take down Thailand. They're 47 places above us in the FIFA rankings [119 to Palestine's 166]. They have a professional league and a population of nearly 70 million." (There are an estimated 3.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and 10.6 million worldwide.)

Palestine certainly has a chance. It just has to make up a 1-0 deficit from the first leg on Saturday in Thailand, in which Palestinian goalkeeper Mohammed Shbair made a last-minute save on a penalty kick. The total-goals loser of Thursday's game (11 a.m. ET) will see its World Cup dream end. The winner will advance to the group stage of Asian qualifying: a six-game schedule starting in September.

The Palestine team happens to have some great stories, too, including starting defender Omar Jarun, a Palestinian-American who grew up in Peachtree City, Ga., and has a first-rate Southern drawl. (I'll be writing much more about him and others in my SI magazine story for next week.)

Nobody here realistically thinks Palestine is going to make it to the World Cup, but reaching the group stage would be a huge victory in itself. "It's not only about being in the group stage, but it's about being with a pool of teams considered the best in Asia," says Aboud. "The recurrence of games would mean more chances to boost yourself in the FIFA ranking and at the same time provide more experience for the players."

For fans like Aboud, this is a must-see game. A recent University of Toronto graduate with a finance degree, he identifies himself as Palestinian but carries a Jordanian passport. He's on his first visit to the Palestinian territories in six years and has taken the chance this week to visit family in Tulkarem and the game in Ramallah. It's the first time he has ever seen Palestine play a home game.

"I was fired up the first time we got a home stadium to begin with," he says, "but I didn't think that any visit of mine would coincide with a big match like this."

A longtime Palestine soccer fan, Aboud started his Football Palestine blog three years ago, in part to help global fans in the Palestinian diaspora who might not be proficient in Arabic. He soon added a co-writer, Amman-based Bassil Mikdadi, who had been a particularly astute commenter on the blog. Their blog entries include translating Arabic news accounts, analyzing game strategy and interviewing Palestinian players.

"It's a niche market," says Aboud of their readership with a laugh. Their Twitter page (@FutbolPalestine) has fewer than 300 followers, but the ones who do read are passionate.

The same could be said of Aboud, who's opting to stand with the fans instead of in the press section on Thursday. It's a huge game, of course, but he also knows that there's a lot more than soccer to the symbolism of the Palestine national soccer team.

"The image the world has of the Palestinian people isn't always very positive," he says. "There are a lot of sympathizers, but another side might say there's terrorism, they don't like life, they just want to kill. But the football team shows that we like life. We celebrate life. That's the kind of message we want to get through."


• When I visited the Arab-Israeli city of Sakhnin in northern Israel for a story in 2005, there wasn't a single hotel in town, so I ended up staying in the basement room of a local resident. As a result I didn't have high expectations of the hotels in Ramallah, but I was floored by the opulence of the Mövenpick Ramallah, which is nicer than most of the hotels I use in America. Fancy swimming pool, gym, restaurants with Taybeh beer on tap: It's all here. Plus there's the unintentional humor of Mövenpick's slogan: "Passionately Swiss." Is that an oxymoron?

• Remember the scene in American Psycho when the young Wall Streeters compare the quality of their business cards? Palestine FA president Jibril Rajub has them all beaten by a mile. When I interviewed him on Wednesday night, he gave me a business card made of metal with ornate curlicue designs and colors and English and Arabic lettering on the two sides. I felt somehow inadequate giving him my paper SI card.

• There are some places in the world where I wouldn't feel comfortable hopping into an overfilled public "taxi," but the locals couldn't have been friendlier when I jumped on for a ride back to my hotel from the stadium in Al-Ram. They were surprised at first, but they cleared a seat for me and started testing out their English.

• The Palestine team has to deal with some unusual challenges. Example: two of the team's starters against Thailand on Saturday -- attacking central midfielder Mohammed Samara and right back Majed Abusidu -- were refused entry into the West Bank when they returned with the team to Amman for their home game in Ramallah. The upshod: If Palestine can pull off the upset on Thursday, it will be an even more impressive achievement.

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