Al Wakrah, Qatar – It was a night to remember at Al Janoub Stadium – a night that belonged to Palestine irrespective of the result on the pitch.
The crowd’s noise, flags and numbers all were in the favour of the team that came into the match with an AFC Asian Cup 2023 loss to its name and a relentless war on its people.
The unrestrained show of love and support for the war-struck nation began before kick off, increased as the night wore on and quietened down only when the last set of fans had left the stadium’s at the end of Palestine’s Group C match against the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Al Wakrah on Thursday night.
Chants of “Free, free Palestine” went up in a crescendo when the players walked out of the tunnel and onto the pitch. The Palestinian players acknowledged the crowd with waves and applause before gathering in a huddle.
“The players will feel a sense of responsibility tonight – they must be aware that they are carrying the hopes of a nation under war,” Mariana al-Hindi, a Palestinian resident of Qatar, told Al Jazeera ahead of kick off.
“They will want to put a smile on everyone’s face by doing well tonight,” she said as she approached the turnstiles with her husband and daughter.
“As Palestinians, we are happy to see out country represented and recognised at a big event, but at the same time, we are heartbroken about the situation in Gaza,” Abdullah, her husband, said.
Once the match kicked off, the men in red were willed on by a roaring crowd.
Every touch of the ball by a Palestinian player was cheered and every time the UAE held possession the unabashedly partisan crowd loudly booed.
Palestine enjoyed some early possession but the UAE soon settled into a rhythm and began attacking the Palestinian goal. Their efforts bore fruit in the 23rd minute when Sultan Adil scored from a free header. The stadium fell silent for a moment until a small contingent of Emirati fans began singing.
Not to be deterred, the rest of the crowd picked up again and urged the Palestinian team to push for a goal and when a Oday Dabbagh was hauled down in UAE’s box 12 minutes later, the crowd jumped up and pointed to the penalty spot.
The referee’s dismissal of the appeals was not taken well by the crowd, who willed him on to run a VAR check.
When a penalty was subsequently awarded to Palestine and Khalifa Al Hammadi was shown a red card, the stadium stood up to applaud the decision.
Tamer Sayem failed to convert from the spot and the first half ended with UAE still in the lead.
There was no let up in cheering during half-time, especially when the intro to the song Dammi Falastini blared from the PA.
The crowd was up on its dancing feet and singing along to the chorus – they were all Palestinian for one night.
When play resumed, Palestine looked to take control of the proceedings with early pressure and it bore fruit as the UAE scored an own goal in the 48th minute.
Palestine didn’t care how the goal came – they ran around the pitch in delight. In the stands, it was pandemonium. Children jumped on the seats, women hugged each other and men let the tears flow when the ball went in.
“These players have been through a lot, all Palestinians have been through a lot, so this was a very special moment,” Yassine Abdullah, a Palestinian student, said moments after the goal.
“Everyone saw what hard work, inspiration and support did for Morocco at the World Cup – we are hoping this match can do the same for our team,” he said as Palestine pressed for a second goal.
“We could be the Morocco of this tournament.”
Despite their relentless attacks, the 10-man UAE team kept Palestine at bay and held on for a 1-1 draw.
At the full-time whistle, the Palestinian players walked around the pitch to applaud their supporters for the electric atmosphere that kept them going all the way until the end.
Assad Qusais, who watched the match with his family, said the men in red may have done just enough to keep some hope alive.
“It depends on they play against Hong Kong [in the last group match] but we could still make it as one of the best third-placed teams,” he said with a shrug.
Abdullah, who compared the support enjoyed by Palestine to the backing Morocco enjoyed at the World Cup, said he would love it if his team replicated a similar run.
The continental tournament and the match may not may not carry the weight of a World Cup, but the night meant the world to the passionate Palestinian supporters.