That isn't to say it's extravagant. "In these small countries World Cup qualifying isn't glamorous at all," he says. "It's not the glitz of Chelsea or Real Madrid." After last week's qualifier in Thailand the team flew coach from Bangkok to Cairo to Amman and bused to Ramallah, where most of the players slept in crude dorm-style rooms at the stadium. Only on the night before Thursday's game did the team move to a modest hotel, but even then the players slept three to a room and left for the stadium at noon, six hours before kickoff, presumably so the federation could avoid a late-checkout fee.
Yet those challenges are minor compared with the ones the team endures while traveling in and out of the Palestinian territories, the borders of which are rigidly controlled by Israel. Two starters from the game in Thailand—attacking midfielder Mohammed Samara and right back Majed Abusidu—were refused entry into the West Bank and missed the return leg. As for Jarun, he said he finally had a meltdown with Israeli border officials. When he'd entered the West Bank for the first time in June, "they thought I was a beach-bum American," he said. "Then it completely changed when they saw my name: Omar Belal Jarun." He says he spent six hours answering inquiries about his family history to fill the officials' computer database but balked when they began asking the same questions during a two-hour stop at the Jordanian border last week. Finally, he says, a female official came out.
"I know this guy," she said. "He's not a terrorist."
"Well, thank you for clearing that up," Jarun replied, "that I'm not a terrorist because I'm Palestinian."
Rarely is anything simple in Israeli-Palestinian relations, and soccer is no different. (Israel belongs to the European confederation because many Arab nations refuse to play against them.) Yet while Jarun admits to frustrations over border interrogations, he's quick to add that he'd like to be a catalyst for positive change. "We're the new generation," he says. "I want there to be peace in this part of the world. I don't know what I can do besides playing football to show that Palestinians are normal people who aren't all going to blow up other people. It's a sensitive subject, but I'm not going to shy away from it. I'm sick of there being racism toward both sides, and it needs to stop."
For all the difficulties that come with playing for Palestine, Jarun says it's worth the effort. He likes his teammates. He appreciates the chance to play international soccer. He has connected with his roots. After the home qualifier in early July he visited his ancestral home in Tulkarem, where Jarun shot video of his grandfather's house and met nearly 200 family members who came to meet him. He also had a special audience with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, who thanked Jarun, posed for a photograph with him and gave him a small gold bar as a token of his appreciation.
On the eve of last week's big game, Jarun pondered the meaning of World Cup qualifying even when reaching Brazil 2014 was the longest of long shots. "You've got to keep competing for something that you'll probably never make," he said. "I love this sport. I'm playing for Palestine. I know football brings countries together. I never think: Why do I play, because we'll never make the World Cup? I believe we can make it. I believe in this team."
Do sports and politics mix? Should Palestinians push the legitimacy of their national aspirations through soccer? Jibril Rajoub believes so. The 57-year-old president of the Palestinian Football Association has brought more money than anyone else to Palestinian soccer since taking over in May 2008. Money from FIFA. Money from the Palestinian National Authority. The national stadium is Rajoub's doing. So is the growth of the national team and the creation of a women's soccer league. And so are the two giant billboards of his face that hang in the stadium, next to those of the late Yasser Arafat and Abbas and the heads of FIFA (Sepp Blatter) and the IOC (Jacques Rogge). In his previous career Rajoub led the once feared Preventive Security apparatus in the West Bank. He speaks slowly and, by turns, in a booming voice and a near whisper, like a Palestinian Al Pacino. He is a powerful man.
"What we're doing for our youth is part of our commitment to recharge the mental batteries toward peaceful means," he says one night in his office, in front of a giant painting of Arafat. "Toward coexistence, democracy, respect for human rights, freedom of expression. It's a statehood-building process."
Murad Alyan did it. Palestine's star striker got the early goal against Thailand, slipping through the middle and firing a bombazo of a leftfooted blast. The 11,500 people in Faisal Al-Husseini Stadium erupted. Palestinian flags waved. Chants rang. Men and women sang Alyan's name. There's no feeling in the world like scoring a big goal for your national team in front of an adoring home crowd. The aggregate score was deadlocked 1--1, and Alyan had a single thought: We're going through. Palestine, tiny Palestine, was going to be the early Cinderella story of World Cup qualifying.