Playing for Palestine: How Oday Dabbagh Went from Occupation to Europe’s Elite

This summer, Oday Dabbagh became the first home-grown Palestinian footballer to play in Europe's top leagues – his story is the latest symbol of resistance to decades of occupation.

Oday Dabbagh plays for Palestine in an Asian Qualifier for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. (Credit: Getty Images)

In the 80th minute of a routine home win for Porto in late August, the away team makes a substitution.

Arouca are 3-0 down but Oday Dabbagh enjoys a lively cameo on his debut. He takes the team’s only shot on target, grapples with three-time Champions League winner Pepe, and earns a yellow card for pulling down an opponent. Within minutes of the final whistle, clips are up on YouTube and Arouca’s Instagram page is flooded with adulation for the new signing.

The first home-grown Palestinian in an elite European league was a moment to be savoured.

In the weeks leading up to the official announcement of Dabbagh’s transfer from Kuwaiti champions Al-Arabi his devoted fans endured an anxious wait for his visa to be approved, and badgered the king of football transfer gossip Fabrizio Romano for updates.

A handful of diaspora Palestinians have reached a similar level, such as Argentine-born Daniel Mustafa, once of Belenenses. But Dabbagh is the first product of Palestinian domestic football. A few days after Arouca’s new striker was unveiled the Primeira Liga climbed to fifth in Uefa’s coefficient rankings (the “Dabbagh effect”), above Ligue 1 in France. Sharp wits on social media noted this meant Dabbagh would be playing at a higher level than Lionel Messi.

The fervent belief within Palestinian football, and of the player himself, is that his star will continue to rise.

‘For My People’

Dabbagh recognises the impact of his success in his homeland, and it inspires him.

“Of course this is a great feeling and a source of pride not just for me but for all Palestinians,” he says, responding to written questions. “I hope I can play well and be an ambassador for Palestinian players.”

Dabbagh playing in the 2019 AFC Cup for Hilal al-Quds. (Credit: Getty Images)

He discovered the game as a child growing up in the Old City of Jerusalem, where he would practice skills he watched Robin van Persie produce on the ancient cobblestones. Some traces of this influence may remain in Dabbagh’s instinctive finishing, although he scores more with his head than the Dutch master.

By the age of 16, he was playing for West Bank Premier League (WBPL) team Hilal al-Quds and scored three goals in his debut season.

“You could see he had skills and qualities above the rest of his team-mates,” says Roberto Kettlun, a Chilean-Palestinian who played alongside Dabbagh that season. “He had the mentality for high-level competition… and the humility to keep improving.”

Hilal al-Quds went on to win the title in each of the following three seasons, with Dabbagh increasingly prolific. He finished 2018/19 the league’s top scorer with 16, and reached the highest tally for a Palestinian in the AFC Cup – Asia’s equivalent to the Europa League. Dabbagh had also broken into the national team and scored his first goal for Palestine aged 19.

Football under occupation was rarely straightforward. Matches were delayed while a team was held at a checkpoint. The Faisal al-Husseini Stadium, home to both Hilal al-Quds and the national team, had to be abandoned several times when it was tear gassed by the Israeli army. Players were denied permits to travel abroad, and teams from other Arab countries refused to play away matches in Palestine to avoid normalisation with Israel.

Dabbagh’s national team-mate Sameh Marabaa missed key matches serving eight months in an Israeli jail under “administrative detention” – a status that allows indefinite imprisonment without charge – the latest in a long line of Palestinian players to suffer the same fate. As lynch mobs patrolled Israeli cities looking for Arabs in May, players living inside the Green Line were unable to travel for a training camp, and two players lost their homes during the bombing of Gaza.

“All Palestinian sportsmen face challenges because of the occupation,” says Dabbagh. “But with perseverance, concentration, and taking the challenges head on you can achieve your goals and dreams.”

By summer 2019, the young striker was keen to play at a higher level and suitors were circling. Dabbagh negotiated his departure with the reluctant Palestinian Football Association and signed for Al-Salmiya of Kuwait in July. His first season was a trial in which he broke a collarbone, caught Covid-19, and struggled to establish himself. But he flourished on loan at Al-Arabi in 2020-21, where he won the league title and the golden boot.

Dabbagh with the Kuwaiti championship as an al-Arabi player in May of this year. (Credit: Instagram)

Al-Arabi received the trophy in May, as deadly violence swept Dabbagh’s homeland. He posted a dedication: “To my country, Palestine, which is hard to break. For my people who refuse to succumb to humiliation, who do not know the meaning of surrender or defeat.”

Success and Sabotage

Dabbagh’s success is unprecedented, says Bassil Mikdadi, operator of FootballPalestine.com, the most comprehensive resource on the game in Palestine.

“Palestinian players that are products of the league football system in the West Bank and Gaza do not go to Europe,” he says.

Mikdadi has been covering Palestinian football since 2008 and says Dabbagh is the most exciting player he has seen “and it’s not close. That’s not a slight on Palestinian football talent. There are players in the current national team that could play in Europe.”

But Dabbagh is something else. The speed of his progress through the ranks distinguishes him, and his move to Portugal at the age of 22 is perfect timing. He should improve technically and physically, and Mikdadi expects him to join a bigger club within a season or two.

This is a consensus view among those who have worked with Dabbagh. His manager at Al-Arabi Ante Mise compared him favourably with another of his former players Mario Mandžukić, a star at Juventus and Bayern Munich.

Dabbagh’s success is both a credit to Palestinian domestic football and in spite of it, says Mikdadi. There is finally a stability to the WBPL that sees every season actually finish unlike the chaotic period up to the end of the Second Intifada. Had Dabbagh been born 10 years earlier he would likely have vanished without trace. Now he is one of several emerging talents and his success could lead to offers from Europe for other Palestinians.

But players are let down by poor governance, Mikdadi adds. Footballers often go months without their wages being paid. The league and clubs are not generating sustainable revenue, as exemplified by Hilal al-Quds failing to negotiate any percentage of future transfer fees for Dabbagh. In a football-obsessed country, attendances are poor, which Mikdadi attributes to bizarre locations for stadiums and lethargic marketing.

The dynamic is similar at national level. Palestine recently experienced a golden age, qualifying for two successive Asian Cups, recording a string of handsome victories, and climbing above Israel in the world rankings for the first time.

Oday Dabbagh poses after signing for Portuguese side Arouca this summer. (Credit: Futebol Clube de Arouca)

But Mikdadi feels the team has often been sabotaged from above. The popular and successful coach Abdel Nasser Barakat was suddenly replaced with Bolivian Julio Baldivieso in 2017 under an arrangement that involved the Saudi FA paying his wages, before bringing back Barakat’s team – minus Barakat – when results took a downturn. In March, the Palestinian FA volunteered to play a vital World Cup qualifier with Saudi Arabia despite most of its players being unable to travel and lost 5-0.

But results have improved since the return of Barakat’s team, and with Asia’s allocation set to double for the expanded World Cup in 2026, there is optimism that Palestine could make its debut.

Expression of Identity

Dabbagh’s success is about more than football, says Ramzy Baroud, an author who has spent a lifetime writing about the fight for Palestinian liberation.

“(Football) is part and parcel of the Palestinian struggle for freedom,” he says, noting that clubs are named after martyrs, while the national team is known as ‘the Fida’i’ after the Fedayeen fighters.

“When the Palestinian national team was admitted into FIFA in 1995, that single event carried a profound meaning to Palestinians everywhere,” says Baroud. “It was not just another piece of football news, but a symbol of our collective self-assertion as a nation that is fighting for recognition, freedom, and most importantly against all attempts aimed at our erasure.”

Football is favourable terrain for Palestinians, says veteran journalist Daoud Kuttab, pointing to the solidarity shown by footballers during the bombing of Gaza, and at stadiums around the world.

“That Dabbagh is Palestinian is going to be a source of attention and hopefully support, as much of football has been very supportive of the Palestinian cause,” he says.

Kuttab notes that FIFA grandees have often visited Palestine, not of their own volition but because of the wishes of their member countries. He expects the Palestinian cause to be highly visible at the World Cup in Qatar next year.

Dabbagh can also counteract the collective dehumanisation of Palestinians, Kuttab adds, undermining Israeli depictions of a nation of terrorists. “A successful Palestinian footballer goes a long way to breaking this generalisation.”

Dabbagh does not hide his ambition. “I want to reach the pinnacle of the sport and play in the biggest leagues in the world,” he says. A nation will be with him every step of the way.