Middle East

Palestinian footballers in bittersweet Olympic match

Palestinian football supporters celebrate before the start of a match between Palestine and Thailand in the West Bank town of Al-Ram, 9 March 2011
Image caption Thousands of football fans turned up for the historic match at the Faisal Husseini stadium

The Palestine national football team has played its first ever competitive match at home in the West Bank.

It won the second leg of an Olympic qualifying game against Thailand but lost the tie in a penalty shootout.

The team has been affiliated to Fifa since 1998 and its stadium was upgraded to international standards in 2008.

But security concerns and Israel's continuing occupation meant the team had been unable to host any competitive international matches until now.

The BBC's Jon Donnison in Ramallah says thousands of Palestinians braved the cold and the wind to cheer their team on, among them Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

"It is a historic day for our team, for the first time it's playing a home game, in an international competition, one that counts," he said. "This is another occasion on which we can show we are a state".

"The world now will see Palestine in different eyes, in sports eyes," said Jibril Rajoub, chairman of the Palestinian Football Association. "This is a new launch for the Palestinian people toward freedom and independence."

The celebratory atmosphere was slightly dampened by the result, as well as the weather.

Abdul Hamid Abuhabib scored a goal for Palestine in the 43rd minute, and Thailand were reduced to 10 men for the last 20 minutes of the match.

Image caption The Palestinians scored a goal but it was not enough to beat Thailand

But the visitors carried a 1-0 lead from the first leg in Bangkok, and after extra time came the penalty shootout, which the Thais won 6-5.

The head of the Asian Football Confederation, Mohamed bin Hammam, was at the match and talked of sport as "a bridge between peoples and a way to reach peace in this region".

He urged Israeli sports people to put pressure on their government to ease the travel restrictions on Palestinian athletes.

Palestinian officials say their sportspeople routinely face difficulties in trying to reach national or international competitions.

Last October, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised visiting IOC President Jacques Rogge that he would consider ways of easing these travel restrictions.

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