Ramallah, West Bank, Jun 17: For years, Palestinian football was disorganized, underfunded and hindered so much by Israeli travel restrictions that games were often forfeited because players couldn't arrive for the kickoff.
But the sport is now growing, with new stadiums rising across the West Bank, the local football federation hosting international competitions, and the Palestinians set to host their first ever World Cup qualifying match next month.
Players say boosting the game is about more than sports: It's a mission to build an independent nation.
"When teams come play on our land, it's a way of recognizing the Palestinian state," said player Murad Ismael, 26. "That benefits the Palestinian cause, not just Palestinian sports."
The Palestinian Olympic team plays Bahrain on Sunday and on June 23 in the second preliminary round of Asian qualifiers for the 2012 London Games.
And in the biggest match in Palestinian history, the main national team faces Afghanistan on June 29 and July 3 in first-round Asian qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
The improved football program jibes with the plans of political leaders, who have been trying to build the foundations of statehood outside the moribund peace process with Israel.
Leading the charge is an unlikely man, Jibril Rajoub, a gruff former West Bank security chief who spent 17 years in Israeli prisons.
Rajoub left politics in 2006 and was appointed head of the Palestinian Football Federation and Olympic Committee two years later.
Sitting in his Ramallah office, where players greet him with kisses and he summons aides with a wireless buzzer, 58-year-old Rajoub said he uses sports "to send a national message" to the world.
"We are like any people," he said. "Sports for us are a part of achieving our national goals."
Since Rajoub took over, the federation's annual budget has swelled from $870,000 in 2008 to more than $6 million in 2010, said finance manager Jihad Qura. It once had three full-time employees. Now it has 30.
Rajoub said the development is thanks to the Palestinian Authority, the federation's main funder, which decided in 2008 to invest in sports.
Since then, five new stadiums have been built and refurbished throughout the West Bank.
The most recent was inaugurated in the southern town of Dura on June 12 with a friendly between the Palestinian and Italian Olympic teams. Thousands watched.
In March, the Palestinian Olympic team played its first home game in the West Bank city of Ram, just outside Jerusalem, a powerful symbol for a people seeking independence.
The Palestinians lost in a penalty shootout to Thailand, but advanced to Sunday's qualifying round because Thailand fielded an ineligible player.
The national team played its first home game in the same stadium in 2008, with FIFA President Sepp Blatter in the stands. They previously played "home" games in Jordan or Qatar.
In May, Blatter returned for the Palestinians' first international club tournament, scheduled around the commemoration of Israel's founding -- which Palestinians call "the catastrophe."
Sixteen teams from Senegal, Hungary, Jordan and elsewhere participated.
Blatter promised to help Palestinian players and coaches with their most common complaint: Israeli travel restrictions.
International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge is also working with both sides to improve the travel situation.
Palestinian athletes need Israeli permits for most travel, either to cross Israel from Gaza or to enter or leave the West Bank -- a hurdle that has often kept players from key matches.
In 2007, FIFA forced the Palestinians to forfeit a World Cup qualifier to Singapore because they failed to field a full team after Israel denied permits to 18 players and officials from Gaza.
Rajoub said the restrictions persist.
"To this moment, no is the rule, yes is the exception," he said.
But a number of players said the situation has improved from when it was common for players to get stranded abroad for months or stuck in Gaza with no way out.
Efraim Zinger, head of the Israel Olympic Committee, said he has tried to facilitate movement for Palestinian athletes, and military spokesman Guy Inbar said Israeli authorities decided in late 2010 to ease restrictions on athletes as a "gesture" to the Palestinian Authority.
"As a policy, Israel is allowing football players from Gaza to play in the West Bank in the internal league, and also to play for the Palestinian national team and go abroad for official games," he said. Still, he added, "security issues" sometimes prevent travel.
Player Hossam Wadi, 25, hasn't left the West Bank for his native Gaza since 2008, he said -- even when he got engaged last year.
He said he worries Israel won't let him leave Gaza again, jeopardizing his team's prospects.
"It's a chance to play in the World Cup," he said of his team's first-leg match against Afghanistan to be played in Tajikistan on June 29. "We have to make sacrifices."
The match is considered a home game for Afghanistan, which must play in a neutral location because of security issues.
On July 3, the eagerly awaited second leg is set to take place in the West Bank -- if Israel permits the Afghan athletes to enter.
The team remains a long-shot to make it all the way to Brazil. Ranked No. 171 in the world by FIFA last month, the Palestinians would need to make it through a second preliminary round to even be included among the 20 Asian teams which get entered into the main draw for World Cup qualifying on July 30.
When all qualifying rounds are over in 2013, four Asian teams will earn direct spots to the World Cup in Brazil, while a fifth advances to a playoff against a team from another continent.
Many see sport aiding the cause, even if the Palestinians don't win.
"Palestinians can't just be known as militants or for throwing rocks and burning tires or for shooting at Israelis," said the federation's technical director Mazin Khatib.
"We have to struggle too in sports to prove that we deserve to be an independent, sovereign state -- that we love life and that we love to play football." AP