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Palestine’s FIFA World Cup Hopes Shine Amid the Shadows of War

In a dramatic culmination to the FIFA World Cup 2026 Asian qualifiers, Palestine and Australia will face off at HBF Park on Tuesday. The match is not just about soccer; it bears the hopes and dreams of a nation besieged by war, casting sports as a beacon of hope and resilience.

Banners supporting Palestine have already appeared in various locales, including California, reflecting the global resonance of the Palestinian cause. The soccer journey of Mohammed Rashid, once a forklift driver in a Chicago warehouse, epitomizes this narrative. Rashid and his teammates bear a colossal emotional weight, channeling the turmoil back home in Gaza into spirited performances on the soccer field.

Against the harrowing backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war, now stretching into its eighth month, Palestine has defied expectations to make it to the third round of the FIFA World Cup 2026 Asian qualifiers for the first time. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Rashid remarked during a press conference in Perth. “We’re here for one cause and one goal. Whoever is on the team has to perform. There is no other way to it.”

Ranked 93rd globally, Palestine has never been this close to World Cup qualification via the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) route. The expansion of the FIFA tournament to 48 teams and the doubling of Asia’s automatic qualification spots to eight provide Palestine with a historic opportunity to etch their name into the annals of soccer.

Tuesday’s match will conclude the current phase of the qualifiers, with both Palestine and Australia already guaranteed a spot in the next round in September. “Of course, it’s a big dream,” Rashid acknowledged, “but a dream like this requires significant hard work before it can be achieved.”

Although Palestinian team officials prefer to steer clear of politically charged queries during press briefings, the players are outspoken about the painful reality of life in Gaza. According to the Gaza Health Ministry, the conflict has claimed over 36,700 Palestinian lives. On October 7, Hamas and other militant groups killed approximately 1,200 people in Israel, mostly civilians, and took around 250 hostages.

“It gives us the chance to raise the name of Palestine to the whole world, and the World Cup is the biggest platform for this,” affirmed Rashid, a defensive midfielder. “What’s happening right now is affecting all of us. You can’t help but be affected by it.

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Rashid’s soccer journey began with a college scholarship in Illinois from 2013 to 2017, leading him to sign with the Palestinian Premier League a year later. Despite the United States and Australia among numerous UN members not recognizing Palestine as a country, the Palestine Football Association secured full FIFA membership in 1998.

Nicknamed Al Fida’i (The Warriors), the Palestinian team has seen only moderate regional success until recent times. They focus on disciplined play, mirroring the unyielding spirit of their players, having conceded just one goal in five matches during this qualifying cycle.

The past few years have compelled Palestine to play their ‘home’ matches in Kuwait and Qatar, as the last game on their soil was in 2019. Rashid, currently a player for Bali United in Indonesia, reminisced, “The last time we played Saudi Arabia at home, it was a full house. People were climbing trees to watch the game. We’ve had 28 consecutive away games, which is tough. But we are always playing for our people.”

The team walks a fine line between avoiding incendiary remarks and existing as a political symbol. The public denial of a visa to Jibril Rajoub, the PFA president and a political figure, emphasizes the ongoing controversies. “These decisions are made at arm’s length by the bodies, by the immigration department,” commented Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

Despite these challenges, Rashid and his squad remain focused, aiming to be a symbol of unity and hope for Palestinians. “When it comes to soccer, you try to keep your head out of the controversy,” he explained. “These matches are what Palestinians are hanging onto. They give them hope. For us, this motivation is invaluable.”

As Rashid and his teammates prepare to confront Australia, their efforts serve as a clarion call for resilience and hope in strife-torn Gaza. Only time will tell if their arduous journey will culminate in a historic World Cup appearance, but their pursuit of this dream continues to inspire.