Conflict or world peace? How football is a game of two halves

Jews and Palestinians found common cause supporting a successful Arab team from Galilee. But is the beautiful game really a force for harmony?

By Simon Round, February 11, 2010
Kefiyehs and Hebrew banners: supporters of the Arab Israeli team B’nei Sakhnin cross the political divide

Kefiyehs and Hebrew banners: supporters of the Arab Israeli team B’nei Sakhnin cross the political divide

Six years ago, a small club from Galilee won the Israeli State Cup. It was the equivalent of Wimbledon beating Liverpool in the FA Cup Final at Wembley — except more so, because B’nei Sakhnin were the first Arab club ever to achieve this kind of success in Israeli football, and in winning the cup, surviving in the country’s Premier division and representing Israel in the Uefa Cup in Europe, Sakhnin became a focal point and a source of pride for all Arab Israelis.

Sakhnin’s epic season has now become the subject of a book, Goals for Galilee, by two former CNN reporters, Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler. They feel that Sakhnin’s experience was a significant moment not only in Israeli sport but in the country’s history and politics — proof that football can be a unifying force in society.

Klochendler asserts that the success of Sakhnin, a team which, in an echo of the Arab-Israeli narrative, had lost the use of their own stadium (it was not considered for top-level football), somehow affected the relationship of Jews and Arabs in Israel.

“For the first time, Israelis realised that maybe a majority of the Arabs living in Israel want to be a part of Israeli society. Until the Sakhnin phenomenon, the feeling among the majority of Jews was that they couldn’t trust the Arabs, that they want to throw the Jews into the sea. This was the first time that the Arabs showed they wanted to be a part of the country in such a tangible way that it was very hard to Jewish Israelis to deny that fact.”

This new view of Arab Israelis was cemented, adds Kessel, when the club flew off to play Newcastle United in the Uefa Cup in 2004. Suddenly, they were no longer merely an Arab team, they were an Israeli team.

“When Sakhnin went off to play in Europe there were religious Jewish guys wearing kippot at the airport saying ‘represent us well’. The club were immensely proud to be representing Israel and by and large Jewish Israelis supported them.”

Here then was a story of Arab-Israeli pride. But more than that, it was a story of Jewish-Arab co-operation — Sakhnin was a team with both Jewish and Arab players, a club with an Arab chairman and a Jewish manager. The new-found respect of Jews for their Arab compatriots and the raising of Arab self-esteem reached a new level when Sakhnin’s Arab captain Abbas Suan was selected to play for Israel — and came on as a substitute to score a dramatic last-minute equalising goal in a World Cup qualifier against Ireland.

“In that instant you had the Arab saving Israel, in fact becoming an Israeli hero. More than the saviour of the national team, he became the saviour of Israel. The headlines in the morning papers — ‘Arab saves Israel’ — had biblical overtones,” says Kessel.

Sakhnin players became national heroes when they won the Israeli State Cup

Sakhnin players became national heroes when they won the Israeli State Cup

Although Kessel and Klochendler claim that many Jewish Israelis have become Sakhnin fans, they acknowledge that the Arab club is not universally popular in Israel. Indeed the sickening anti-Arab chants of rivals Beitar Jerusalem continue to punctuate games between the two clubs — and Beitar still have a policy of not signing Arab players. However, Klochendler sees hope in the way that Sakhnin fans respond to these taunts.

“What Sakhnin have over Beitar is the power of irony. They stand wrapped in the Israeli flag chanting ‘Allah hu-akhbar’. And when they beat Beitar, the fans wave the Israeli flag. This is an almost unbearable vision for Beitar fans. What the Sakhnin supporters are saying is: ‘We are as Israeli as you are — don’t stereotype us’.”

For all the symbolism of Sakhnin’s success, both Kessel and Klochendler agree that this is a moment whose significance has yet to be cemented. Says Kessel: “It remains to be seen whether this new feeling goes beyond a game of soccer, particularly if Sakhnin get beaten. There are ups and downs in the Jewish-Arab relationship. While Sakhnin Arab-Israelis are saying that they don’t want to turn the clock back to 1948, Jews have to accept that this is their land as much as it is ours — there is still a way to go.”

That football can be a force for good is a controversial position, given the enmity which the game has provoked throughout the world. Simon Kuper, the French-based author of the award-winning book Football Against the Enemy, feels that the most football can hope to achieve is a moment of unity and happiness. “A couple of days after the Israel national team win, everyone is delirious and the feelgood factor is very high. A month later is it still the same when there is a hold-up in the peace process or someone is blown up? What does it mean when an Arab Israeli waves an Israeli flag? Does it mean that he loves Israel and everything it stands for and wants to adhere to its constitution, or is he saying: ‘I support this team which has some players who look like me and speak my language’?

“Here in France people claimed that winning the World Cup in 1998 with an ethnically diverse team had united the country. Four years later the far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen got his highest-ever vote and there were race riots in the ghettos. It’s hard to believe that these things are more than a flickering.”

Kuper also believes that it is unrealistic to believe that football can exert sufficient influence to bring people together. “If you are an Arab or a Jew in Israel, you get your information from a variety of different sources. Football is just one of the many prongs which shape your view, so it’s not like you wake up one morning and Sakhnin have won the cup final and your view of the world has been changed forever.

“But its an interesting topic because football illuminates a subject very well. When people talk about Sakhnin they are talking about the place of Arab Israelis in society. Football is a great lens for this story, but football almost never changes anything. However, it does make people happier and that’s worth an enormous amount. One reason that people like sport is precisely because it is an escape.”

However, Kuper also points to football’s capacity, some would say propensity, to create division in society. “People often say that had it not been for football, violence would express itself in other ways. But where hooliganism is concerned you could argue that football creates an antagonistic framework. Football brings together two groups of young men from different cities to fight. Nothing else could bring them together in the same place.”

Novelist Jeremy Gavron will be debating this subject with Kuper and Kessel later this month at a Jewish Book Week evening entitled Football Across Borders. He will also be appearing, alongside Kuper, in an England writers’ team which will take on their Israeli counterparts on the same day. As someone who both plays and spectates, Gavron feels that football can have a positive role to play in society.

“Football on its own does not have the power to transcend ordinary human realities. But I do think that sport can bring people together. When you go to the World Cup, as I have a few times, you enjoy a shared experience with people of many different nationalities that doesn’t happen in any other area of life.

“Of course football is tribal — it actually manufactures tribes artificially and it’s amazing how important they can become to people. Questions of nationality and race are the major problems in society around the world and there’s no doubt that football can be used in a negative way.”

However Gavron is convinced that the good outweighs the bad. “There is no doubt that football has contributed in a positive way to racial attitudes in this country. The instinctive little Englander side of English culture has learned to live with and embrace different nationalities, particularly black footballers.”

Football does remain a focus for nationalism. However, Gavron does not think that this is necessarily a bad thing.

“I love it when we celebrate the differences between nationalities. When you are at a World Cup, the Dutch will respond in one way and the Brazilians in another. Even the writers seem to play in national styles. Our team will be going to the writers’ World Cup in the summer. It will be a wonderful meeting of different cultures on and off the pitch. That’s the joy of it. That’s what football can do.”

Last updated: 10:20am, February 11 2010