Football: War-torn Palestine praying for Japan miracle

Football: War-torn Palestine praying for Japan miracle
This file photo taken on May 30, 2014 shows Palestinians celebrating in the West Bank city of Ramallah after Palestine qualified for their maiden Asian Cup appearance with a 1-0 win over injury-hit Philippines in the final of the AFC Challenge Cup in Maldives.

SYDNEY - War-torn Palestine will attempt to bridge one of the widest gaps in Asian football when they take on defending champions Japan at the Asian Cup on Monday.

The team from the Palestinian territories has already made history just by reaching their first Asian Cup, thanks to their AFC Challenge Cup triumph last year.

But they face arguably the toughest assignment of the group stages with a Group D opener against Japan, whose star-studded lineup is targeting a record-extending fifth Asian Cup title.

It remains to be seen how the Blue Samurai will react to a match-fixing scandal engulfing coach Javier Aguirre, who is set to give evidence in court in Valencia next month following allegations over a match in 2011 when he was manager of Spanish club Zaragoza.

"I can tell you clearly that it has had no effect on the team," Japan captain Makoto Hasese told reporters, when asked about the furore. "We all believe in one another in this team, all the players and coaching staff are pulling in the same direction." While Japan are Asia's second-ranked side at 54 in the FIFA rankings, Palestine come in 61 places lower at 115, the second-lowest in the tournament and above only Kuwait.

If they could somehow produce even a draw in Newcastle - itself a massive ask - it would trigger wild celebrations from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip and provide a small slice of solace in their homeland, devastated by years of war and political turmoil.

Japan, however, will be looking to make a statement after watching hosts Australia open their campaign with a thumping 4-1 victory over Kuwait and midfielder dynamo Keisuke Honda has been putting in extra hours on the training ground fine-tuning his trademark free kicks.

Hit with little or no spin, in a similar fashion to Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, Honda's technique can bamboozle the world's best, as he has frequently demonstrated since he shot to fame at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

For Palestine it will be important to make an impact in their Asian Cup debut after president Mahmoud Abbas reminded the players that "sport is still an important weapon in politics" before they departed for Australia as the battle to achieve statehood continues for the territories.

FIFA recognised the Palestine national team in 1998 and the team has made steady progress since, despite the hardship caused by the conflict with Israel, which makes travel to and from tournaments extremely difficult and at times puts the players in peril.

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