With a smile etched on his face in spite of a heavily bandaged head, Palestine’s Oday Dabbagh strode through the mixed zone following his team’s narrow 2-1 defeat to Qatar on Monday.
A couple of meters away from Dabbagh, midfielder Mahmoud Abu Warda disdainfully stated “we didn’t deserve to lose, the referee did not do us justice with the penalty kick (awarded to Qatar).”
For all his success, the Charleroi attacker has made it a point to avoid the limelight in Qatar. When a journalist called out to him from the scrum of the mixed zone, “Oday, Oday! Palestine’s star,” the Jerusalemite responded by clicking his tongue disapprovingly.
“Palestine has 26 stars,” he said in a curt but friendly manner before escaping to the safe confines of the team bus.
Before turning 25 two months ago, Dabbagh notched 100 goals for his clubs in the Palestine, Kuwait, Portugal and Belgium top flights. For context, there is not a single player participating at the 2023 AFC Asian Cup that has scored more at club level before turning 25.
The forward has been addicted to scoring goals from a young age. After making his professional debut as a 16-year-old for Hilal Al-Quds he wasted no time in scoring his first goal for his hometown side. That first strike came 23 days after his 17th birthday and was crucial in helping one of Palestine’s oldest sides avoid the ignominy of relegation.
Lessons learned in that first season as a professional have served Dabbagh well.
“When I first got promoted to the first team I just did not make a big deal of it. I just did not put myself under pressure — the nature of my personality helped — I have always been a calm person. So when I started playing and scoring in the league I just never saw my opponent as being better than me,” he told Arab News.
Less than three years later after making his national team debut and playing at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, Dabbagh was off to Kuwait.
“Being a part of that squad and playing important minutes against Australia and Jordan gave me confidence. Our younger players like Zaid Qunbar and Samer Zubaida from the Olympic team who played at (the 2023 Asian Cup) will also help them and be a boost to their confidence.”
In many a Jerusalem household they are talking about their native son who now plays for Charleroi in Belgium’s top tier. Every match Dabbagh has played since leaving his hometown in 2019 has been closely watched by Palestinian football fans.
His start to life abroad did not go as planned — early success was interrupted by a broken collarbone and a contractual dispute with Al-Salmiya that saw him void his contract to sign for rivals Al-Qadisiya.
The forward tested positive for COVID-19 in the summer of 2020 and Al-Qadisiya had a forgettable season. The decision was made to bring in new foreign players to the team. Dabbagh was loaned out twice and it was in the tail end of that loan stint when Dabbagh really hit his stride. Thirteen goals in 18 games for Al-Arabi made him top scorer of the league and gave the side their first title in over two decades all thanks to a player on loan to them from their biggest rivals.
As a free agent, Dabbagh eschewed more lucrative offers in Kuwait to try his luck in Europe. The first stop was Portugal where four goals in his first season helped Arouca avoid the drop. He then hit 11 goals in his encore season leading the modest side from the Aveiro District to a UEFA Conference League berth.
In spite of hitting 15 goals in 17 starts, a contractual dispute saw Dabbagh sign on a free agency with Charleroi at the start of the season. The Palestinian is currently the team’s top scorer with five goals in 19 matches across all competitions.
Dabbagh parlayed that form into a stunning Asian Cup, inspiring his team to the knockout stage for the first time in their history. Palestine got off to a rotten start in the continental showpiece going down 1-0 to Iran after just 70 seconds. The team was down by three after 38 minutes en route to a crushing 4-1 defeat.
Palestine were much-improved against the UAE in their second game but found themselves a goal down halfway through the first half. Palestine won a penalty kick after Dabbagh was brought down in the box by Khalifa Al-Hammadi. Tamer Seyam missed the ensuing spot kick but the team found an equalizer in the second half and were unlucky not to translate their statistical dominance into three points instead of one.
That meant Palestine faced a win-or-go-home match against Hong Kong. The scenario was similar to the one the team faced going into their last group stage game at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup and the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup. This time though Palestine romped to a 3-0 victory.
Did Dabbagh and his teammates feel the pressure?
“As far as the Hong Kong game is concerned I just tried to keep things light. Stay with my group of friends and chat about anything but the game,” Dabbagh said.
“I just try to do my best. I go into the game and do what is asked of me. Reading stuff in the press is useless, it will just put you under pressure. The team was super focused going into the game and we played really well which gave us a good result.”
The win over Hong Kong featured a brace from the Charleroi forward. So resounding was their victory, the team was set to advance to the round of 16 as runners-up in the group only for a late goal by the UAE in their 2-1 loss to Iran that forced them to settle for third place.
With the background of the ongoing war and genocide in Gaza, Dabbagh and the rest of the team felt a unique responsibility to bring a modicum of relief and joy to the Palestinian people.
Every goal scored has featured muted celebrations highlighted by the players holding their hands crossed above their heads.
That was the case again when Dabbagh bamboozled the Qatari defense to give Palestine a surprise lead against the hosts and holders.
“It was a mix of emotions, a cross between happiness for scoring and sadness for what is happening in Palestine — you can never forget about that,” he said.
In spite of the loss, Al-Fida’i have not let their heads drop and are now focused on 2026 World Cup qualifying.
“This is just going to push me to score more goals with the national team,” said Dabbagh.