More than 10,000 followers of the beautiful game sang, danced, shouted and chanted their way into AAMI Park for the Palestine vs Jordan match in this year’s Asian Cup.
Although the 5-1 result in Jordan’s favour was no real surprise, supporters were as jubilant at the mere presence of the Palestinian team as they were at its first tournament goal.
Many fans had arrived two hours before the 6pm kick off on January 16 and were treated to Dabke displays (traditional Palestinian folk dance). Also watching were a significant police and private security presence ready to clamp down on “unruly” behaviour, with bag searches and attempts to confiscate ‘political’ material.
Fans known to be attending in support of Palestine were contacted by police before the match and encouraged not to behave in a “political” manner. Police and security tried — but failed — to confiscate pro-Palestine signs and banners. One attendee told police they had to “do something about that BDS t-shirt over there”.
That the Palestine team had made it to the Asian Cup in Australia is considered a stunning success. One player was prevented from travelling to the tournament by the Israeli government. FIFA recognised Palestine’s national football team in 1998 and, perhaps surprisingly, was among the first international organisation to recognise the Palestinian state. FIFA President Sepp Blatter even travelled to Gaza in 1998.
FIFA is hardly a model of openness, transparency and good governance, but it is a rare institution that has gotten used to Palestine. It acknowledges the existence of a place or concept of Palestinian identity even though there may not be corresponding national, sovereign institutions.
There was a small Jordanian media presence at the match, seeking local fans for their opinion on the match. Local media, in the form of free copies of the Herald-Sun, was less well received.
Many fans immediately recycled the paper that had a cover story of “home grown jihadi threat” and a stereotypical picture of a bearded, Arab man.
Palestinian ex-pats were especially excited about the match. They stressed how important it was that a big audience attended the matches and supported the Palestinian team.
One family who travelled from Geelong for the match after attending Friday prayers said: “We have done our God duty, now we are here for football duty. Thankyou for coming.”
This was echoed after the match by a small group of Palestinian women who thanked obviously Anglo looking fans for coming to see “their” team. One said: “It is so important that you and everybody come. No one talks about Palestine. It was wonderful, like a wedding.”
Post-match celebrations were thoroughly pro-Palestinian and hundreds were still gathered more than an hour after the game. Supporters chanted “Free, free Palestine” and the pro-Palestine banners that defied confiscation, were joined by a sea of Palestinian flags.
In either surprise or disappointment for many concerned about the “security” aspects of the match and the behaviour of fans from opposing Middle Eastern teams, Palestinian and Jordanian fans mingled freely before and after the game. The result seemed almost secondary for Jordanian fans, who were just as jubilant that the match had taken place.