Palestine rising in world soccer

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.

"Football is a game we all love in Palestine," said Rajoub. "If we lived in peace, we could go far in sport." Now the team is focused on the game against Asian champions Japan, who will also be their opening opponents in the Asian Cup in January.

The Asian Games is for under-23 teams plus three senior players, meaning some Asian Cup-bound players are in Incheon.

"I know it is not going to be easy for us, but we will do our best," said Barakat.

"We prepared well for the Asian Games despite the difficult situation at home. We organised trips to Bahrain, Qatar and Oman." No matter how far they get at the Asiad, the Palestinians have arranged an intensive follow-up. They will play matches in India, China, Vietnam, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia before going to Australia in January.

The first day of second round matches will also see South Korea take on Hong Kong, China play Thailand and Jordan play Kyrgyzstan.

The Games hosts won all three of their opening group matches without conceding a goal. Japan lost to Iraq and looked frail.

China also lost a game to unbeaten North Korea and only squeaked through to the second round, while Thailand hammered Indonesia 6-0 on the way to top place in their group with three wins, 11 goals scored and zero let in.

On Friday, Uzbekistan play Saudi Arabia, Iraq take on Tajikistan, North Korea play Indonesia and Vietnam meet United Arab Emirates.