Palestine rising in world soccer

Palestine rising in world soccer
The Palestine football team trains at the Songdo LNG football training field on Sep 16, 2014.

INCHEON, South Korea - Palestine go into the knockout stage of the Asian Games men's football on the back of a spectacular rise in the world rankings, but the team is not celebrating.

Despite a siege of Gaza and the recent Israel-Hamas war, Palestine have reached the Asian Cup finals in Australia in January and on Thursday they play Japan in the Asian Games second round.

The Palestinians topped their qualifying group with wins over Oman and Tajikistan, who have just had a player kicked out of the tournament for failing a drug test.

Despite their troubles, the Palestinians, who only joined FIFA in 1998, have invested in football in recent years and it is starting to show.

In March, 2011, Palestine were ranked 178th in the world by FIFA. In July this year they reached an all-time high of 85th, though they have since slipped back to 102.

They have players like striker Imad Khalili who was the top scorer in the Swedish league last season and is now with Shanghai Dongya in China.

"We have qualified for next year's Asian Cup so obviously we are making good progress," said coach Abdalnasser Barakat.

"Our football ranking has gone up... the leadership is satisfied," said Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Football Association, and a leading member of the Fatah political organisation.

But the conflict is never far from the minds of the players and coaches.

"The Palestine sports family believes we can expose to the world how much our people are suffering at the hands of Israel," Rajoub told AFP, highlighting how sports facilities had been destroyed and 37 athletes and coaches were killed.

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