Saudi soccer players pray at Al Aqsa Mosque


JERUSALEM — Players from Saudi Arabia's national soccer team traveled to Jerusalem's Old City on Monday to pray at one of Islam's holiest sites.

The players visited the Noble Sanctuary, a compound that houses the Golden Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam.

"This is the most beautiful day in my life," said Yasser Al-Mishal, the president of the Saudi Football Federation.

"Really, it's hard to express my feelings. I thank God that I could visit Al-Aqsa Mosque and pray inside the mosque."

The Dome of the Rock is built where the Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, is said to have ascended to heaven and it encompasses the Foundation Stone, a rock holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians. Jordan has custodianship of the holy sites.

The Saudi players are due to face the Palestinian national team in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday for a World Cup qualifying match.

Saudi football fans are delighted about their national team's historic match against their Palestinian "brothers" in the occupied West Bank.

Arab clubs and national teams have historically refused to play in the Palestinian territories — occupied by the Jewish state since 1967 — as it requires obtaining entry permits to Israel, a country most of them do not recognize.

"It is a good thing to support sport in Palestine given the situation there," said the 27-year-old football fan Saad told AFP, his eyes locked on a screen playing a Saudi match in a cafe along Tahlia street, a restaurant-lined thoroughfare. "The Palestinian cause remains a fundamental one for Saudi Arabia."

After defeating Singapore 3-0 last week, the Saudi national team will face Palestine on their home turf in the West Bank in the Asian qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup.

The game marks a change in policy for the Kingdom, which has previously played matches against Palestine in third countries.

According to the Saudi Sports Authority, the decision to play in the West Bank was "at the request of the brothers in the Palestinian federation" and to ensure the team is "not deprived the chance to play at home and among its fans".

For another of the Saudi football fans watching the match against Singapore, the historic match-up has nothing to do with politics.

"For the Saudis and the Palestinians, the goal of the match is to qualify for the World Cup," said 30-year-old Hazzaa.

Abu Abdallah, a Saudi businessman, said he believed it was an honor for his country's team to play the Palestinians among their people.

"This is something rare to happen, and the Kingdom would not take any step unless it was in the interest of the Palestinian people or Saudi Arabia," he said. — Agencies