Palestine Players Continue Push for World Cup Qualification amid War Back Home

A placard reading "Free Palestine, end Israel Occupation" is pictured on Parliament square, central London, on June 8, 2024 at the end of "National March for Gaza", calling to "end the genocide" and "stop arming Israel". (AFP)
A placard reading "Free Palestine, end Israel Occupation" is pictured on Parliament square, central London, on June 8, 2024 at the end of "National March for Gaza", calling to "end the genocide" and "stop arming Israel". (AFP)
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Palestine Players Continue Push for World Cup Qualification amid War Back Home

A placard reading "Free Palestine, end Israel Occupation" is pictured on Parliament square, central London, on June 8, 2024 at the end of "National March for Gaza", calling to "end the genocide" and "stop arming Israel". (AFP)
A placard reading "Free Palestine, end Israel Occupation" is pictured on Parliament square, central London, on June 8, 2024 at the end of "National March for Gaza", calling to "end the genocide" and "stop arming Israel". (AFP)

Mohammed Rashid once worked as a forklift driver in a Chicago warehouse.

Fast forward to these grim times and Rashid, along with his Palestine football teammates, carry a heavier weight knowing success on the field offers a little respite from the war raging in Gaza.

Amid the horrifying backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war, now in its eighth month, an inspired Palestine has produced a stirring run to reach the third round in Asia of World Cup qualifying for the first time.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Rashid said in Perth on Monday, a day before Palestine plays Australia. “We’re here for one cause and one goal.

“Whoever is on the team has to perform. There is no other way to it.”

Palestine, 93rd in the world rankings, has never come close to reaching the World Cup via the Asian Football Confederation’s qualifying route. With the 2026 tournament expanding to 48 teams, and Asia’s automatic qualification allocation doubling to eight, Palestine has a legitimate chance to make history.

Palestine and Australia meet at HBF Park on Tuesday to complete the Asian second round. Both teams are safely through to September’s next stage.

“Of course, it’s (World Cup) a big dream,” Rashid said. “Everything is possible. There’s a lot of hard work that needs to be done before we get there.”

Palestine team officials discourage politically charged questions at press conferences. But the players are willing to publicly engage in conversations about the devastation in Gaza. More than 36,700 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not differentiate between civilians and combatants in its counts. Hamas and other militants killed some 1,200 people in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, mostly civilians, and took around 250 people hostage.

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

Rashid was on a college soccer scholarship in Illinois from 2013-17 before signing with the Palestinian Premier League one year later.

While most United Nations members do not recognize Palestine as a country, including the US and Australia, the Palestine Football Association became a full member of FIFA in 1998.

The team affectionately known as Al Fida’i (The Warriors) had only moderate success at the regional level until recently. Preaching a disciplined style of play, mirroring the resolve of its players, Palestine has conceded only one goal in five matches in this qualifying cycle.

It’s been a remarkable effort given Palestine has not played on home soil since 2019, having been forced to host matches in Kuwait and Qatar. Players have had to flee for safety and seek overseas leagues.

“This is the hardest part (not playing at home),” said Rashid, who plays club soccer for Bali United in Indonesia. “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 (straight) games away, which is rough. But we’re always playing for our people.”

While the players try to avoid making inflammatory remarks, the team’s mere existence is seen as a political statement with controversy inevitably not far away. PFA president Jibril Rajoub was denied a visa into Australia. Rajoub is also a politician and chair of the Palestine Olympic Committee.

“These decisions are made at arm’s length by the bodies, by the immigration department,” Australia Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said.

Rashid and his teammates are hoping to put that setback aside and continue to provide a rallying cry for Palestinians.

“When it comes to (soccer), you try to get your head out of it (the controversy),” he said. “This (Palestine matches) is the only thing they (Palestinians) are watching. The only thing giving them hope.

“For us this is a big motivation.”



Italian Coaches are Dominating the Dugouts at Euro 2024. The Coaching School is the Reason Why

Italian Coach Luciano Spalletti - File/The AP
Italian Coach Luciano Spalletti - File/The AP
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Italian Coaches are Dominating the Dugouts at Euro 2024. The Coaching School is the Reason Why

Italian Coach Luciano Spalletti - File/The AP
Italian Coach Luciano Spalletti - File/The AP

Italy continues a tradition at the European Championship with Italian coaches — this time five — in charge of national teams at the tournament in Germany.

Italy coach Luciano Spalletti is joined by Vincenzo Montella (Turkey), Domenico Tedesco (Belgium), Marco Rossi (Hungary) and Francesco Calzona (Slovakia).

With five of the 24 teams in Germany led by Italians, this tops the Netherlands’ mark of having three coaches — out of 16 teams — at Euro 2008.

All but Tedesco studied at the Italian federation’s coaching school, which is directed by former coach Renzo Ulivieri, who is also the president of the Italian soccer coaches’ association, The AP reported.

“It is a great source of pride for all of Italian soccer and especially for our coaching school,” Ulivieri said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“We think that our coaches are excellent, for two reasons: ours is a good school and then the coaches have a very educational apprenticeship within our leagues, both in the professional leagues but also in the amateur ones, where tactics play a huge part.”

The strength is evident not only in the national teams but also at the club level. Carlo Ancelotti, one of the most famous Italian coaches, won his fifth Champions League title this month when Real Madrid beat Borussia Dortmund 2-0 in the final.

Atalanta, under Gian Piero Gasperini, won the Europa League, beating Leverkusen 3-0. Only Fiorentina's narrow 1-0 loss to Olympiakos in the Europa Conference League final under coach Vincenzo Italiano prevented Italian managers from sweeping the European titles.

“The secret (to Italian managerial success) is our predisposition to the art of making the best out of everything, even in difficult situations,” Ulivieri added. “An Italian-Neapolitan art, which is often useful in being a coach.”

Luciano Spalletti The best known of the Italian coaches at the tournament, Spalletti also got the highest marks.

Spalletti attended the FIGC’s coaching school in 1998-99 and graduated with the maximum grade attainable: 110 cum laude. He wrote his thesis on “The 3-5-2 playing system.”

Spalletti took charge of Italy last year, shortly after quitting Napoli. He led the southern team to its first Serie A title in more than three decades.

That also ended a lengthy wait for his first Italian league title despite coaching teams such as Inter Milan and Roma. He won Italian Cup titles with Roma in 2007 and 2008 and then Russian league trophies with Zenit St. Petersburg in 2010 and 2012.

The 65-year-old Spalletti has brought his all-attacking style and flair to a reinvigorated Italy.

However, the Azzurri have had a stuttering start to their title defense. Italy beat Albania 2-1 in their opening match before being completely outclassed in a 1-0 loss to Spain.

Vincenzo Montella Montella was also one of the top students in class, with a final mark of 110/110 at the end of his course in 2011.

Montella took charge of Turkey’s national team last year but has been living in the country since 2021 as coach of Super Lig team Adana Demirspor.

The 50-year-old had previously coached Fiorentina, AC Milan and Sampdoria among others in his native country as well as Sevilla in Spain. His only trophy as coach was the Italian Super Cup with Milan.

Montella was a prolific forward during his playing career and helped Italy to the Euro 2000 final.

“As a student at the school, Montella was exactly like he was when he was a player: a stellar kid, also studious,” Ulivieri said.

Turkey won its opener 3-1 against debutant Georgia but Montella's team will face a much tougher task against Portugal on Saturday.

Francesco Calzona Slovakia may be Calzona’s first job as head coach but the 55-year-old has had an impressive apprenticeship.

Calzona was assistant coach to Maurizio Sarri at Napoli from 2015-18. He was also part of Spalletti’s staff at the Serie A team and helped lay the foundation for its run to the league title.

Calzona left in August 2022, before the title-winning season, when former Napoli and Slovakia captain Marek Hamsik — who holds his country’s appearance and goalscoring records — suggested he take over as the coach of Slovakia’s national team.

After steering Slovakia to Euro 2024, Calzona was given his first senior role at club level when Napoli turned to him in February as its third coach in a disastrous season. He was given a contract for the remainder of the season and allowed to do both jobs.

Slovakia pulled off the biggest shock of Euro 2024 so far when it beat Belgium in their opener. It lost its second group match to Ukraine.

Marco Rossi After several years of coaching in the lower leagues of Italian soccer and then finding himself without a club for a year, Rossi considered joining his brother’s accountancy firm.

But a chance meeting with the sporting director of Honved at a restaurant in Budapest led to him to take charge of the Hungarian team.

The 59-year-old Rossi had two spells with Honved and led the team to its first Hungarian league title in 24 years in 2017. He also coached a Slovakian team before being appointed Hungary coach in July 2018.

Rossi steered Hungary to Euro 2020 but lost its opener to Portugal and was eliminated at the group stage despite impressive draws against France and Germany.

Hungary lost both its matches so far at this year's tournament, to Switzerland and Germany.

Domenico Tedesco The youngest of the Italian coaches, Tedesco was also the only one not to study at the federation’s coaching school.

The 38-year-old Italian-German was appointed as Belgium coach in February last year but has quickly built a solid and entertaining team that was unbeaten in his tenure until the shock loss to Slovakia.

Tedesco emigrated from Italy to Germany with his family when he was 2 years old. He began his coaching career with the youth squads at Stuttgart when he was just 22, while also working at the Mercedes factory.

Tedesco obtained his coaching license in Germany and was top in a class that included current Germany coach Julian Nagelsmann. He coached the senior teams at Schalke, Spartak Moscow and Leipzig, which he led to the German Cup in 2022.