MIDEAST: Not Correct Soccer, But Better

  • by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler (sakhnin, israel)
  • Tuesday, June 30, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

Ambassador Zantovsky is a resourceful diplomat: he's timed his soccer celebration well, kicking off 'The European Cup in Sakhnin', an innovative project designed to bridge divisions between Jewish and Arab children through the universal game, to crown the end of his country's six-month mandate at the helm of the rotating EU presidency.

Well-intentioned diplomat that he is, Zantovsky is also blessed with self- awareness. So, on this balmy Friday morning, he immediately realised he'd made a carefully crafted, though wrong, call: 'You're all Ronaldos!' he declared enthusiastically, opening the day-long tournament in the soccer capital of Galilee area. 'No!' was the immediate volleyed return from the chorus of youthful voices - 'We're all Messis!'

'This is Sakhnin where stars are locally bred and groomed, not bought for outlandish sums,' whispers Ghazal Abu Raya, Sakhnin city spokesman. Barcelona, not Real Madrid.

The undiplomatic gaffe was the only minor lapse on a day which tested the Nelson Mandela maxim that 'Sport has the power to change the world, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else can.'

The young footballers, boys and girls aged 12 to 15 from different backgrounds and towns, did not play alongside their usual team-mates - instead they were mixed up in different teams bearing the names and badges of the supporting European countries - Portugal, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Romania and France alongside the hosting Czechs.

National flags were much in evidence - even though this goes against the grain of what happens in the stands of the town's professional soccer club, Bnei Sakhnin, who play in the Israeli premier league: for all their passion, unlike fans in many countries, the Sakhnin supporters rarely fly flags - neither the Israeli colours nor the Palestinian colours.

It's as if, as Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel, their town's soccer success allows them to be Israeli without having to raise the Israeli flag, just as it allows them to be Palestinian without sporting the Palestinian flag.

Five years ago, the modest club and their fervent fans (not only the thousands who follow their soccer triumphs and tribulations, but also all of Israel's 20 percent Arab minority) strode into Israeli public consciousness by winning, against all odds, the Israeli State Cup. Suddenly, the million plus Sakhnin 'fans' were on the Israeli map, calling on their Jewish compatriots to admit them as equal partners on the 'national pitch', and to stop 'relegating them beyond the sidelines' of Israeli society.

Appropriately, the tournament was staged on the Sakhnin practice pitch alongside the town's Doha Stadium named after the capital of Qatar which provided the bulk of the funding, the first time an Arab state has ever invested in an Israeli project.

The atmosphere in Israeli soccer grounds doesn't always demonstrate this purity of purpose. Shouts of 'Death to Arabs' and other racist barbs often fill the air. Zantovsky thus opted for the 'European Cup model of tolerance' to engage children who are yet to become hardened and entrenched in their attitudes.

Coincidentally, the uplifting meeting of minds and hearts took place on the very day that the former president of the Israeli Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, denigrated the shortcomings of Israeli democracy, decrying the failure to live up to the commitment to guarantee full equality, and outlaw all form of discrimination against the Palestinian Arab minority.

While the honesty of his trenchant criticism was applauded, Israeli civil rights activists wonder why Barak, who sat at the pinnacle of Israel's justice system for a full 11 years, waited until his retirement from office to sound the alarm bell.

The Friday game was about 'a merging of identities rather than a highlighting of separate identities,' says Robert Rehak, cultural attaché at the embassy. The guiding principle, he added, is to encourage Jewish and Arab children to reach beyond the usual barriers and to defy the customary stereotypes.

Massoud Ghanaim, a legislator of the Islamic Party in the Israeli Knesset, and a resident of Sakhnin, observes sadly that, 'while young Jewish Israelis, when they grow up, love to explore the world and make friends in the four corners of the earth, they rarely venture into Arab villages or bother to get to know their next-door neighbours.' Likewise, few Jewish children get the opportunity to visit an Arab town; in contrast, Arab Israeli children are accustomed to going into Jewish towns.

Thirteen-year-old Erez from the Jewish town Zichron Ya'akov says that some of his fellow pupils, or their parents, had been so wary about coming into an Arab town that they had pulled out of the tournament. He himself plays regularly in a league in which Arab teams compete, though he did note that 'during the war' (Israel's war on Hamas in Gaza) 'we had security people with us when we played against Arab teams.'

His team-mate Tom says candidly he had been 'a bit nervous', but the fun of playing soccer 'any time, any place' got the better of his doubts. Fourteen- year-old Leila from Sakhnin, who played in goal for the 'Romanian team', says, 'We hope that just as we welcome them to play with us in our homes, they will want to welcome us in their homes.'

Accommodating to 'the other' takes on an additional dimension - with the participation of children from the Alliance Israélite Universelle School for the Deaf in Jerusalem. Most of the Jerusalem team, Palestinians from the Israeli- occupied eastern part of the city, have to handle several identity predicaments: they are not Israeli, but they live in an area which Israel alone defines as part of its capital city. They study in a Jewish school and their sign language is culturally rooted in the Hebrew language, not in their mother- tongue Arabic.

Soccer has become critical in helping them cope with the multiple challenges of their lives, says their counsellor, Galia Daniel-Teacher. 'We only introduced an organised soccer programme this year and, already, it's literally transforming the children, their discipline, their self-esteem, in encouraging them to work as a team.'

All the Jerusalem players were delighted to have scored at least one goal apiece in an event deliberately structured as non-competitive. All were proclaimed 'winners', all awarded medals by the Ambassador and the Sakhnin mayor, Mazen Ghanaim, formerly chairman of the Bnei Sakhnin club. Not exactly 'soccerly-correct', but a distinct plus in this bid to secure what's normally a less-than-satisfactory result for soccer fans, but which is the ultimate goal in the 'Big Match' between Majority and Minority - an equal draw.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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