Hebron's Ahli defeat Khan Younis to win Palestine Cup

Hebron's Ahli defeat Khan Younis to win Palestine Cup
A 1-1 draw in the second leg of the Palestine Cup final was enough to see the first round winners go through to represent the nation in the AFC cup.
3 min read
02 August, 2016
Ahli al-Khaleel celebrate with the trophy after qualifying for next season's AFC Cup [AFP]

The second leg of the Palestine Cup final at Hussein bin Ali stadium in Hebron - featuring local boys Ahli Al-Khaleel and Gaza's heroes, Shabab Khan Younis - was mired in a heady mix of politics, permit predicaments and passion for playing the beautiful game.

The controversial match finally kicked off on Tuesday afternoon after delays, speculation and threats of cancellation, and only after Palestinian Football Association director Jibril Rajoub was forced to ask FIFA to intervene in talks with Israeli authorities to secure travel permits for six Gazan players to make the the West Bank.

The match kicked off ten minutes late, after a series of photos and hand-shaking by a gaggle of politicians keen to make the most of the momentum of the now infamous match - a victory of Palestinian sport against the reality of the military occupation.

Yet despite the festive mood of the politicians, the atmosphere in the half-empty stadium was far from joyful.

That the match was delayed from Saturday night to a working-day afternoon, combined with al-Ahli's relatively small support base in Hebron (compared with city rivals Shabab al-Khaleel) and the popularity of tonight's fixtures in the Abu Amar Cup, meant only a few fans came to cheer on either team.

Al-Ahli enjoyed the comeback of its Israeli-Palestinian star players - Abdallah Jaber, Ayman Kharbat and Ahmed Harbi - but the first half failed to ignite the footballing flair many here were hoping to see.

Islam Al-Bitran was again very active in Ahli's attack, especially with the absence of Mahmoud Wadi. Wadi, Ahli's first choice in attack, is still in Gaza, stuck without permission from the Israeli military to cross Israel to return to his adopted hometown, Hebron, in the southern West Bank.

Khaled Kouka had a dangerous chance for Khan Younis, but his free kick floated high above the crossbar. Minutes later, Ahli had a goal disallowed for an offside offence just before the half time whistle. The final's first half was concluded by the referee after a lacklustre footballing display from both sides.

The second half started in the same rhythm, with the contenders each failing to raise their game. Kouka had another vital chance, but it sailed wide.

Finally, on the stroke of the 82nd minute, the game came to life with a superb attack from al-Ahli.

Kharbat, on his debut for the club, bolted a brilliant pass to Khaldoun al-Khalman, who easily passed two Khan Younis players, before passing to Islam al-Bitran, who was all alone, free to score.

Al-Bitran, who scored the winner in last week's first leg in Gaza, looked certain to have secured the cup for al-Ahli.

While a few hundred Ahlawyies celebrated in the stands, Khan Younis players looked broken. Gazan coach Nahed Abu-Ashkar made a quick change, taking off the disappointing Mohammed Barakat and replacing him with Rafik Ashour.

Khan Younis fought back hard against al-Ahli, and Khatem Shekshek found an equaliser for the Gazans in the 87th minute.

Unfortunately for them, it was too little, and far too late.

With the final whistle blowing at 1-1, Ahli al-Khaleel's single first-leg goal was enough to see them through, scoring 2-1 on aggregate to win the Palestine Cup for the second year in a row. They will now go on to represent Palestine in the AFC Cup qualifying matches in February 2017.

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here.