As they embark on the 2026 men’s FIFA World Cup qualifiers, the Palestinian squad not only face life or death, but also a mental turmoil, as Israeli bombardment continues to batter their home turf.
Football teams worldwide are gearing up for the 2026 World Cup and the 2024 Asian Cup qualification, but for the Palestinian national team, competition comes against the backdrop of a deadly war.
Israel’s devastating bombardment of the Gaza Strip since October 7 has killed more than 11,000 people, including 4,506 children and over 3,000 women.
As Gaza continues to face unprecedented levels of violence, focusing on football may seem like the least of their worries, with Israel’s land, sea, and air assault endangering every living individual there, but nevertheless, the Palestinian football team soldiers on.
The team has been training in Jordan in preparation for their second-round opener of the FIFA 2026 World Cup Qualifiers against Lebanon on November 16.
“With the death and destruction in Gaza, the players are in a difficult psychological state,” Makram Daboub, the Tunisian football coach aiming to pilot the team to their very first World Cup tournament, said.
Daboub also revealed to The Associated Press that there is a possibility of several team members being absent from the games, as Ibrahim Abuimeir, Khaled Al-Nabris, and Ahmed Al-Kayed remain trapped in the besieged Gaza Strip.
“So far, they are fine,” Daboub said, adding that many of their relatives have died as a result of the bombing.
FIFA’s selective morality
As footballers in Gaza remain subject to the full wrath of war, analysts have questioned the silence of FIFA on condemning Israel for its sustained attacks, especially as it will have an impact on the performance of Palestinian players.
Unlike the war in Ukraine, in which FIFA adopted both a legal framework and charitable approach to those affected by the Russian invasion, the football governing body has yet to state any support towards Palestinians publicly.
Last month, Mohammed Al-Rakhawi, a striker for the Palestinian Shabab Rafah Sports Club, came close to death as his home was reduced to rubble during Israel’s bombardment.
Pulled from the rubble of his home, the Palestinian footballer’s near-death experience failed to receive the attention of FIFA.
Simon Chadwick, a Professor of Sport and Geopolitical Economy at Skema Business School, expressed that “silence” is not an option for FIFA despite the organisation’s stance to remain impartial to politics.
“One wonders how FIFA might have reacted if the players had been from, say, a large European nation or a country that is highly placed in its national team rankings,” Chadwick told Doha News.
“FIFA has to say something about Palestine’s players, the country’s national teams, how fixtures are going to be fulfilled, and what (if any) mitigating measures can be put in place to account for the losses that Palestine has suffered,” he added.
The professor believes that there is likely a political or economic reason for FIFA to not comment on either this specific war or the countless Israeli battles against Palestine that have occurred in the last several decades.
“There are likely to be some stark economic and political realities driving their reluctance to take a position,” he explained.
“For instance, taking sides might cause an organisational schism amongst members or result in sponsors and commercial partners withdrawing from relationships with them.”
‘No politics’ in football
Yet again, the double standards of FIFA’s so-called neutral stance have not been the case before as both the football governing body and UEFA suspended Russia from the 2022 World Cup stage and all of its teams from all international football competitions.
In its own Legal Handbook that was updated amid the Ukraine war, FIFA states: “Discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, disability, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.”
However, FIFA has often ignored several trials of suppression by Israeli officials of Palestinian footballers.
In 2014, Israeli forces raided the headquarters of the Palestinian Football Association in al-Ram, near Jerusalem, interrogating and harassing employees in the building. The matter was condemned, but no actions were taken against Israeli authorities by any football governing body.
Asian Football Confederation president Sheik Salman Bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa called the raid a “dangerous precedent.”
“Breaking into the PFA headquarters … a dangerous precedent that requires the international sporting family to stand together and support the PFA,” the President said in a statement on the AFC website.
In 2018, Palestinian footballer Mohammed Khalil filmed the bleak moment in which he was shot in the knee by an Israeli soldier.
Peacefully protesting, Khalil would see his footballer career over as he would require knee replacement surgery.
The story of Khalil is not unique as several footballers have been attacked by Israeli forces, but have not had their stories documented.
Despite Israeli infringing and breaking international law, support for Palestine has been criminalised in several European arenas.
On several occasions, UEFA, governed by FIFA, has issued disciplinary actions against clubs that allow fans to raise Palestine flags during matches.
Celtic football fans who have stood in solidarity with Palestinians for several years have had their club fined as they flew Palestine flags ahead of a match despite being asked not to do so.
The Scottish club was previously fined £9,000 in 2016 after fans flew Palestinian flags during their 5-2 victory against Israel’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva.
The European football’s governing body expressed the flags as illicit banners under Article 16 of its disciplinary regulations, which states: “Gestures, words, objects or any other means to transmit any message that is not fit for a sports event, particularly messages that are of a political, ideological, religious, offensive or provocative nature.”
Dr Mahfoud Amara, an Associate Professor of Sport Management at Qatar University, expressed that despite a double standard with FIFA, the organisation has attempted to create conflict resolution initiatives within Palestine and Israel.
“FIFA and UEFA were quick to position themselves regarding the war in Ukraine and to sanction Russia. However, FIFA and UEFA have been reluctant to do the same for Israel despite its defiance of UN resolutions,” Dr Amara told Doha News.
“In the past, there have been only a few warnings related to protecting the mobility of Palestinian football players and regarding racial discrimination and racist behaviour by some Israeli football clubs aligned with extremist political agendas,” he said.
“There were some tentative post-Oslo Accord efforts by FIFA following the Palestinian Football Federation’s adherence to initiate football and conflict resolution programmes in Israel and refugee camps in the occupied territories. Nonetheless, these programmes remain symbolic considering the reality of the military occupation and colonial system,” Dr Amara added.
As all illegal settlements Israel established across the West Bank are in violation of international law, FIFA has remained silent, refusing to disqualify Israeli football clubs within the province.
Craig LaMay, professor of the Communications Program at Northwestern University in Qatar, addressed FIFA as complicit in allowing Israeli manoeuvring at its will.
“A week after the October 7 attacks, Infantino wrote a letter to both the Palestinian and Israeli FA’s expressing ‘condolences’ and urging peace, but otherwise not saying much of anything. He has been more careful with his statements about Israel and Palestine than any other issue in my memory, but that is not new,” LaMay told Doha News.
“FIFA has for several years refused demands to disqualify Israeli football clubs based in the West Bank. Last week, FIFA blocked Algeria from hosting 2026 qualifiers for the Palestinian team,” the Northwestern University professor added.
To some, FIFA’s actions are no surprise as the football organisation has remained biased in its decisions.
British-Iraqi Filmmaker Saoud Khalaf chimed in on the issue, referencing retired Arab football icon Mohamed Aboutrika, who was punished during the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations for displaying solidarity with Palestinians.
“After Egyptian player Mohamed Aboutrika received an official warning from the Confederation of African Football in 2008 for celebrating a goal while wearing a shirt that said, ‘Sympathise with Gaza,’ it was clear that FIFA, as the parent organisation, was not going to condemn Israel for its most recent and heinous act of aggression against Palestinians,” Khalaf told Doha News.
“How can a football organisation that sanctions teams for showing support for a besieged population be expected to advocate for an end to the slaughter of defenceless civilians in Gaza?” the filmmaker asked in reference to the Celtic FC penalties.