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The two men sit on the artificial turf in a West Bank soccer stadium and talk about the peculiar challenges of playing for the Palestinian national team. Murad Alyan, an Arab-Israeli striker from Jerusalem, is a scoring machine—43 goals in 41 league games last season, seven in eight for Palestine—but his coach has been threatening to bench him for the decisive World Cup qualifier two days later if he keeps reporting for work in his day job as a lab assistant at a public health center.
"The coach says, 'You can't go to work! You have to stay here with the team,'" Alyan, 33, says. "But I've had this job for 14 years. It's my main income. I can't afford to lose it." Newly married, Alyan had used vacation days to travel to Thailand with the team a few days earlier. And so, on the day before his date with World Cup destiny last week, Alyan put in a shift at the lab, then drove his dust-covered Honda Civic from Jerusalem to the Kalandia checkpoint, a gray, prisonlike crossing of gates and watchtowers. He waited in a traffic snarl, showed his I.D. to a machine-gun-wielding guard and inched into the West Bank, toward the stadium on the other side of the concrete wall.
The other man listens to the story with a wry smile. Abdelatif Bahdari, 27, a sturdy central defender from Gaza and Palestine's captain, knows all about complex crossings. In the past, Bahdari says, due to instability in the region, Gaza players would sneak through secret underground tunnels to reach Egypt and then join the Palestine team ("a big adventure," he says), but for the game in Thailand, Israel had given Bahdari his paperwork. The return leg against Thailand last Thursday would be just the second World Cup qualifier played by Palestine on home soil. In other places they might have called the showdown a do-or-die game. Bahdari does not. But it is much more than a soccer match. "Playing as a national team for Palestine is a perfect step in building the country," Bahdari says, "especially now that we have a home field. We're sending the message that we're not terrorists, we're human beings. We can be a part of this world."
In the 21st century the World Cup is a big-time event in the U.S., a mainstream attraction that draws TV audiences comparable to those for the World Series and the NBA Finals. But the World Cup isn't just a 32-nation tournament that takes place over the span of a month every four years. In fact, most countries call that event the World Cup finals to distinguish it from the marathon global qualifying campaign that lasts 29 months and involves more national teams than there are members of the United Nations. FIFA has 208 national associations, and 204 entered the Hydra-tentacled bracket for World Cup 2014. The first match was played on June 15 (Belize 5, Montserrat 2), and the tournament will end at the World Cup final on July 13, 2014, at the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
Only Brazil, as the host team, receives an automatic World Cup finals berth. The other 203 nations will play a total of 824 qualifying games on the Road to Rio, rallying their fans and venturing into hostile territory in far and away the planet's most expansive and competitive sporting saga. (The U.S. enters its 16-game regional qualifying process next June.) No single athletic event produces as many compelling stories involving nationalism and politics, society and Cinderella tales. You want a tasty matchup? Try the Battle of the Virgins, in which the U.S. Virgin Islands eliminated the British Virgin Islands last month. Volatility? Look no further than Iraq's defeat of Yemen, in which Iraq was deemed the safer venue—safe enough, at least, to stage a game in-country. Odd pairings in obscure locales? How about Myanmar at Mongolia?
Last Thursday, nearly three years before the start of Brazil 2014, 15 countries would be eliminated from the World Cup in games throughout Asia. No qualifier had more potential for drama last week than Palestine (world ranking: 166) versus Thailand (No. 119), with the winner advancing to the first group stage of Asian qualifying starting next month. "It's David versus Goliath," said Abdel Rahman Hamed, 22, the creator of the blog Football Palestine. "It would be amazing if we could take down Thailand. They're 47 places above us in the FIFA rankings. They have a professional league and a population of nearly 70 million" compared with roughly 4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestine team included two schoolteachers, a waterworks employee, more than a dozen other amateurs and a blond-haired American from Georgia with a Mohawk and a Southern drawl. So alluring was the potential that Hamed, a recent University of Toronto graduate with a Jordanian passport, had entered the West Bank for the first time in six years to visit relatives and see the game at the three-year-old Faisal Al-Husseini Stadium near Ramallah.
The Road to Rio has a few simple truths, one of which is this: You don't need to reach the World Cup finals to make history. Palestinians don't expect to raise the World Cup trophy anytime soon, and yet the stakes couldn't have been higher in the West Bank last Thursday. Thailand had won the first leg 1--0 at home five days earlier, a workable result for Palestine highlighted by goalkeeper Mohammed Shbair's last-minute penalty save. If the prolific Alyan could score an early goal to equalize in the return leg, who knows what might happen? "It would lift the soccer scene in Palestine," Alyan said last week as he finished up his workday at the Jerusalem health center. "We came to the well, but now we have to drink. For us, beating Thailand would be like winning the World Cup."
Omar Jarun doesn't fit most descriptions of Palestinians. He's 6'5". His blond hair is shaved into a Mohawk. He has blue eyes. When he talks, which is often, the man who grew up in Peachtree City, Ga., sounds more NASCAR than Nablus. His first trip to the West Bank, for a match against Afghanistan in June, was "a huge surprise," Jarun said last week at his hotel in Ramallah. "I thought it was going to be people on the streets shooting each other. My girlfriend thought I'd be kidnapped. But it's not like that at all. It's a peaceful country. People are very nice. Downtown Ramallah is no different from downtown Atlanta, minus the big buildings."
Born in Kuwait to a Jordanian-Palestinian father and an American mother, Jarun fled with his family at age seven when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. They settled in Austin, Texas, and later moved to Georgia, where his father, Belal, started a construction company. Omar spent eight years in the Atlanta-area youth soccer club that produced U.S. national-teamers Clint Mathis and Ricardo Clark, played his college ball at Memphis and Dayton and had just finished his second season with the second-tier Atlanta Silverbacks in 2007 when he got a call from a man who said he was a recruiter for the Palestine national team.
"I thought it was a fake," says Jarun, now a 27-year-old central defender. "I'd get crazy phone calls from Arabs all the time." His father checked out the recruiter and decided he was legit. The Jaruns flew on their own dime in '07 to Qatar, where Palestine played its first "home" qualifier for World Cup 2010. The game, played in Doha, was a disaster. Palestine lost 4--0 to Singapore and canceled the return leg. Omar's new teammates asked his father for money, which he gave them. In the four years since, Palestinian soccer has improved. There's now a semipro league and the small national stadium, built with funding from FIFA and the Palestinian National Authority. Jarun no longer has to pay his own way to fly from Poland, where he plays in the second division, and the Palestinian federation even gives him a small per diem.