The Associated Press
October 26, 2008 - 8:00pm

Palestinians may not have a state, but now they have a way to express their national pride -- through soccer.

On Sunday, the national team hosted an international match for the first time, in the West Bank's only regulation-size stadium. Located in a West Bank suburb of Jerusalem, the stadium was renovated with the help of FIFA, soccer's governing body, and other donors.

Thousands watched the friendly game against Jordan, and the crowd roared as Palestinian forward Ahmed Kashkash scored several minutes after kickoff. Jordan tied early in the second half. The game ended in a 1-1 tie.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter was on hand to cheer. ''We are here to realize a dream, that is the national team of Palestine playing in its own stadium,'' Blatter said, calling the event ''historic.''

Some said the international recognition was important. ''We now have a stadium, and the Palestinian flag will be flying in this stadium,'' Wissam Abu Sharif, a 30-year-old Palestinian soccer fan, said ahead of the game. ''Palestine is on the map of international sports.''

It's not a soccer powerhouse, though. The Palestinian team is ranked 180th of 207 members by FIFA. It peaked at No. 115 in April 2006.

Still, for an afternoon, soccer promised to make Palestinians forget their troubles, whether decades of Israeli military occupation or the acrimonious split between the West Bank, controlled by moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

In a joint pre-game news conference with Blatter, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad urged more foreign teams to play in the Palestinian territories. ''This is a sign of solidarity, it's a message of solidarity with the Palestinian people during a time of hardship,'' Fayyad said.

Gaza's prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, said the game was an opportunity to bridge the rift among Palestinians. ''I hope this game can pave the road to restoring the internal Palestinian relations and bring them back on track,'' said Haniyeh, a former amateur player, as he watched the game in his Gaza City home along with two sons, a Cabinet minister and several bodyguards.

A spokesman for the Israeli Football Association, meanwhile, said Israel's national team had no immediate plans to play in the Ram Stadium, but noted that Israeli and Palestinian players formed a team last year to face Real Madrid.

''Every time we are asked to show football can be a bridge to bring people together, we do so and we have done in the past,'' Gil Lebanony said.

Blatter started the day at the headquarters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, where he laid a wreath on the grave of Abbas' predecessor, Yasser Arafat. The two men then opened a tournament of six women's teams. Some of the female players wore headscarves with their uniforms.

Blatter then attended the Jordan-Palestine match at the 6,000-seat stadium in Ram, close to Israel's West Bank separation barrier. The Palestinian team has existed for a decade, but until now had played its ''home'' games in Jordan and Qatar.

On Sunday morning, workers were putting the finishing touches on a $4 million renovation. A bulldozer smoothed a dirt approach road while workers hung banners naming the game's sponsors.

The Palestinian team boasts players from Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Chile, but not all will play. Five of the team's six Gazan players were granted permits by Israel to travel to the West Bank, but the team's captain, Saeb Jundiyeh, was not.

''I am full of anger and sadness because I was denied being there for this historic event which I have always dreamed about,'' Jundiyeh said.

He added that he was in phone contact with his teammates and would watch the match with friends and family in Gaza.

Israel and Egypt have virtually sealed off Gaza from the world since the Islamic militant Hamas seized control of the territory in June 2007. Gaza and the West Bank lie on opposite sides of Israel, and Gazans need Israeli permits to reach the West Bank.


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