Palestine coach Azmi Nasser dies of cancer

Palestine national football team coach Azmi Nasser has lost his fight against cancer and died at the Holy Family Hospital in Nazareth, Israel. The 50-year-old Nasser, an Israeli, coached Palestine to its highest international achievement to date, finishing third in the 1999 Arab Championship in Amman. He always emphasised to his players that they had to fight for respect on the football field. "When we played against the United Arab Emirates, Azmi said to us: 'look how contemptuous they are of you; let's avenge that contempt.' We won the game 1-0 and the next day the headlines in the Arab press read: 'The refugees beat the millionaires,'" Palestine captain Saeb Jendeya recalled.

Fadi Almadhon, a press officer for the Palestinian team, described how Nasser had worked over time for the team, taking care of its every need: "Azmi ran around 24 hours a day, going to the courts in Israel, to the military administration and to ministers to get exit and entry permits for the Palestinian players. The first time he held a training session with the team in Gaza, the players all turned up wearing different shirts and boots. Azmi asked the players: 'What's that supposed to be?' They answered: 'That's what we've got.' Azmi cut short the training session, headed to Sakhnin and returned with a full strip for the players, which he purchased with donations from local businessmen."

Nasser played for Israeli football clubs Ahi Nazareth and Hapoel Haifa in the 1980s. Former Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Shfaram star Zahi Armeli recalled Nasser's winning spirit as a player. "When I was with Maccabi Shfaram and we played Ahi Nazareth, Azmi told me 'we'll win 4-1 and I'll score a goal.' We were a top team and the favorites at the time, but Nasser got the result right and scored a hat-trick."

Nasser’s coaching career started in the early nineties when he coached a number of clubs including Ahi Nazareth with whom he won promotion to the Israel Premier League in 2003, Bnei Sakhnin, Akha Al Nasera and Al Ittihad Sakhneen. In 2003 he described Ahi Nazareth as a "very special cocktail" team. "We have all the kinds. We have Arab, Israel, Israel, we have Jewish, we have strange Brazilian, we have Hungarian, we have Ghana, we have black, we have white, we have blonde – we have everything here in this team. This is very special for this team," he said.

Nasser helped lay the foundations for the current Palestine national team in the 1990s when relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were cordial prior to the start of a Palestinian uprising in 2000. He coached the Palestine national team twice, first in the late 1990s and then for about a year starting in 2005 before he had to leave the job after being diagnosed with a brain tumour. He had to wait for special security clearance from the Israeli army before he could begin his second coaching tenure as the Gaza Strip was declared off limits to most Israelis after the uprising began.

The Palestine Football Association is a member of the Asian Football Confederation representing the Palestinian Authority's territories of West Bank and Gaza. Neighbouring Israel is a member of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), having been pushed out of the AFC by Arab and Muslim-majority members.