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Baldivieso the Bolivian: This week in Middle East football Open in fullscreen

Uri Levy

Baldivieso the Bolivian: This week in Middle East football

Palestinian football has seen huge changes under the Bolivian coach [Getty]

Date of publication: 8 April, 2018

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Just when you thought Palestinian football couldn't get more complicated, enter the national team's new Bolivian manager, Julio Baldivieso, who has created a whirlwind during his first months in charge.
In football there are times when money, power and politics enter the game and change the chemistry of a team, and maybe its fortunes too. 

One such story has been rocking Palestinian football over the past few months. 

It all started when rumours emerged that Palestine's most successful manager, Abdel Nasser Barakat, was set to quit his job for unexpected reasons and a foreign coach was ready to replace him.

Barakat was in charge of the Palestine team during its highest ever FIFA ranking - 70th. In the past few years, "al-Fida'i" saw major progress, including playing in the 2015 Asian Cup and qualifying for the 2019 edition of the tournament. It was more than that, Barakat was the "Fida'i" himself - a former construction worker who left his job and devoted himself to football coaching. 

A few days after the rumours spread, the picture became clearer, but the situation became more complicated. Photos emerged of Jibril Rajoub, president of the Palestinian FA, meeting with Julio Cesar Baldivieso, a Bolivian football coach, and Turki al-Sheikh, president of the Islamic Solidarity Sports Federation and probably the strongest figure in Middle Eastern football today. The three appeared to be signing contracts together. 

The photos went viral and sparked discussion whether Barakat was to continue in his work as Palestine coach. After he posted an open letter on Facebook, things were clear - Barakat was out, Baldivieso in. Barakat's departure seemed to hit the morale of everyone involved in the national team.

Baldivieso who?

Julio Cesar Baldivieso is a major Bolivian football personality, who has some interesting experiences as a coach. Before signing a contract with Rajoub and al-Sheikh, Baldivieso mostly coached Bolivian clubs and the Bolivian national team for one year.

Baldivieso came to attention in 2008, when he played a 12-year-old - who happened to be his son - for a team he managed in Bolivia.

As a player, he saw action in Argentina, Japan, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and took the Bolivian national team to the 1994 World Cup. Yet in South America, he is not considered a notable or successful manager, to say the least. Moreover, he was charged with nepotism not too long ago.

Baldivieso came to attention in 2008, when he played a 12-year-old - who happened to be his son - for a team he managed in Bolivia. Three years later the duo were back at club Aurora, but there was still plenty of drama to be had. Baldivieso senior was filmed appearing to kick his son as they went into the dressing room at half-time. 

So how did such a manager - who does not speak Arabic, lacks management experience, and some would say the right qualities for the job - become the manager of one of the world's fastest-evolving national teams?

It's simple - money. And power. And everything in between.

Turki al-Sheikh, the strongest personality in Arab football, was said to be closely involved in the deal. Baldivieso, so has been claimed, has been close to al-Sheikh since the time he played for al-Nassr in Saudi Arabia.

For al-Sheikh, the deal appears good, too - helping an old friend get a job with a highly-coveted national team, while ensuring that a strong character would be on his side in FIFA and AFC matters, all while improving Saudi Arabia's footballing reputation in the Middle East and Palestine.

This last part is particularly important, as relations between Riyadh and Ramallah soured when the Saudi national team refused to play a 2018 World Cup qualification game in al-Ram, near Jerusalem.

Problems started when Baldivieso asked for a 40-day training camp right in the middle of the domestic league season

Al-Sheikh offered Rajoub a donation of around $1 million to the Palestinian League - allegedly dependent on accepting Baldivieso as the coach of the national team. When Turki asks for something, he usually gets it, and Baldivieso became coach. 

Where is Rajoub?

In the reality of Asian and Palestinian football, you don't walk away from an offer Turki's. A guaranteed $1 million to directly aid local football is no small matter in Palestine, but it's more than that - Rajoub is no longer in a position where he can decline a Saudi offer. He needs their support in various issues, within the AFC, FIFA and in the near future, who knows? Maybe even with the Arab League or the United Nations.

Problems started when Baldivieso asked for a 40-day training camp with the national team right in the middle of Palestinian domestic league season, which is still a fragile creature. It has been running from 2010/11, but there have been problems ever since it kicked off.

This year there were general improvements - but stopping the season just before the "money time" for the season wouldn't be the best decision for the still-nascent league. But Rajoub approved it anyway.

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Palestine went on to play three matches during this time.

Algeria's under-23's in Algiers, Bahrain in Manama, and Oman in Muscat. Zero goals were scored, two goals were conceded, while Palestine managed one draw but lost the other two games. There appeared to be general unrest in the national team camp and the players were divided. Some appeared supportive of the new coach, while others missed Barakat.

In the games against Bahrain and Oman, Palestine's performance was poor. Dressing room unity has long been Palestine's greatest strength, but the story about Baldivieso exposed problems between the players, who apparently did not know how to react to this bizarre situation. 

If that wasn't enough, it was decided by FIFA's arbitration body that the Palestinian FA should pay former coach Jamal Mahmoud $130,000 - a debt from the 2015 Asian Cup qualification campaign. The $1 million the Palestine FA allegedly procured from Al-Sheikh was already down to $870,000. Mahmoud, counted as the best Palestinian coach around, is now leading al-Wehdat to an impressive title comeback in Jordan.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian national team fans - who usually support the team through good times and bad - have launched a campaign against Baldivieso and his crew with the hashtag #روحواـخوليو  - "go away Julio".

It's Julio's turn

Palestine's national team is a project that keeps progressing. "Al-Fida'i" will play an upcoming Asian Cup game in the UAE as a team from "Pot 2" - the second-best group of teams in Asia. They improved their ranking in Asia and worldwide and most importantly, ranked above Israel in the FIFA rankings.

Before the recent mess over the coaching position, Palestine was enjoying its best moment in international football, ever.

What will Julio Baldivieso will make of it? This question has to be directed to Rajoub. As with everything else in Palestinian football, this issue rests on his shoulders.


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

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