Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Palestine misses Asian Cup clash with Singapore

The head of the Palestinian Football Association said his national team's no-show at an Asian Cup qualifier against hosts Singapore on Wednesday was due to neighbouring Israel's refusal to allow players to travel from the Gaza district. However, neither Singapore nor Palestine could qualify for next year's finals as Iraq and 2004 Asian Cup hosts China have already guaranteed their places.

Ahmed al-Afifi said the fixture had to be cancelled because players making up most of the team could not travel through the Rafah crossing from Gaza to Egypt. Another three players, Palestinian expatriates, were to have travelled separately. He said Israel had also refused to allow team members to take an alternative route via Israel and the occupied West Bank to Jordan for their onward journey to Singapore. They had planned to travel to Singapore on 12 November.

The Israeli army denied the allegation, saying Rafah was open to the team at the time of their request to travel abroad. But a military spokesman confirmed that Erez, a Gaza border crossing used by Palestinians to enter Israel, had been closed due to security concerns related to a six-year-old armed conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants.

Afifi said the Palestinian FA had appealed to world football's governing body, FIFA, which he had urged to reschedule the match. "Israel has refused to allow the team to pass through the Erez Crossing to travel to Jordan and from there to Singapore but FIFA insisted that the game must be held on time," Afifi told reporters in Gaza.

The Rafah crossing with Egypt has been closed intermittently since 25 June, when Palestinian militants killed two Israeli soldiers and abducted another in a cross-border attack from Gaza, Reuters reported.

Indeed, last month, Israeli authorities lifted security precautions on the border of Gaza district to allow three Palestinian footballers to join their national team for an Asian Cup qualifying match against China in Jordan. Saeb Jendeya, Palestine captain, along with defenders Hamada Eshbair and Ihmeidan Barrbakh were allowed through the Rafah checkpoint to travel to Amman via Cairo in order to play in the crucial Group E match, Reuters reported.

Meantime, Associated Press reported that Israel went down 4-3 to Croatia in its 2008 European Championship qualifying group.

Israel was one of the 12 founding members of the Asian Football Confederation in 1956 and won the Asian Nations Cup in 1964 (runners-up in 1956 and 1960). Its youth national team won the Asian Nations six times and the Israeli league champions, Maccabi Tel-Aviv and Hapoel Tel-Aviv, won the Asian Champions Cup in three of its four first editions. As an Asian nation, Israel qualified for the quarter final stage of the Olympic football tournament in 1968 and the final stage of the World Cup tournament in 1970.

As a result of increasing numbers of Arab and Moslem countries joining the AFC, Israel was "expelled" from the confederation in 1974 and spent 15 years in international limbo (sometimes playing World Cup qualifiers through the Africa, South America and Oceania football confederations) until invited to compete in the European club cups in 1991. Three years later IFA was accepted by UEFA as a full member.

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