Football in Israel, the not-so-beautiful game

By James Montague, August 28, 2008
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It brings out violent Arab-Jewish rivalries, fuels racism, and splits fans on party-political lines. Writer James Montague spent three years studying Middle East soccer - and learned what makes Israel tick.

Next Saturday, an event of huge political significance will take place in Israel. No, not the Kadima leadership contest. Nor yet another visit from a foreign statesperson seeking to kick-start the faltering road-map for peace. It's more important than that: the Israeli football season cranks back in to gear.

Glib? Perhaps. To some, football is merely a sport, something that exists as a form of escapism from the real world. But anyone with the remotest interest in Israeli football will tell you a different story. For the past three years I have been travelling the Middle East researching my book, When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone, trying to understand the region through the beautiful game. Football is the one thing that everyone from Ta'izz to Tehran to Tel Aviv can agree on - certainly more so than religion, even language. It soon became clear to me that you could understand something of a society's conflicts and tensions as well as its hopes and aspirations. Nowhere is this borne out better than Israel.

Traditionally, the clashes on and off the field have centred on age-old left-right political antagonisms: the Hapoel clubs, traditionally aligned with Labour, rubbed the more centre-right Maccabi teams and nationalistic Beitar Jerusalem - which had a strong streak of support for Likud - up the wrong way.

The most heated rivalry of all, bar the more geographically minded clash between Tel Aviv's top two clubs, was when Beitar Jerusalem took on Hapoel Tel Aviv. "We had a cup final against Beitar in 1999 which was three days after the elections," says Uri Misgav, former sports editor at Ha'aretz. "Labour won and we took a huge banner to the game that read: ‘We f****d you in the elections, now we will f*** you on the pitch.'"

For Misgav, Israeli football is much more than an exercise in 22 men kicking a ball around a field. It's a cathartic political experience that exposes some pretty fundamental tensions at the heart of Israeli society.
"The one thing that stays the same is hatred - the level of hatred," says Misgav. "Israeli society is so tense there are so many conflicts: religious, political, economic, social. It can get really ugly. In Israel it is not a culture of supporting, it is a culture of hating."

Left versus right, rich versus poor, Mizrahim versus Ashkenazim: some of the fundamental tensions at Israel's core are played out on the football pitch and fought out on the terraces every weekend.
That will be evident in the first match of this season, when Bnei Sakhnin will take on the champions Beitar Jerusalem.

Beitar Jerusalem are well known for their passionate fans but, more than any other club in Israel, they possess a large hard core of violent, Arab-hating, right-wing supporters. They are Israel's most populist club, have strong links to the Likud party and can count the likes of Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Binyamin Netanyahu as staunch fans.

It is said that any politician who can win over Beitar's notorious fans can win a million votes - quite a prize in a country of only seven million. But a large minority of those fans exact a high price for that loyalty. Just last season, Beitar's fans were banned from attending a game against Bnei Sakhnin after they whistled during a minute's silence for Yitzhak Rabin and sang that "Mohammed is dead".

After the punishment, a group of fans attacked the offices of the FA, and daubed death threats on its walls. And in one match last season, which they needed to win to secure the championship, the fans invaded the pitch, causing the game to be called off and Beitar stripped of their victory.

Bnei Sakhnin, on the other, was formed in 1996 and is the team of the "20": Israel's Arab Muslims that make up 20 per cent of the population. The small, 25,000-strong town of Sakhnin lies in the northern Galilee region where the Arab population is centred. Unemployment and poverty are worse here than in the rest of the country - a product, many Arab Israelis say, of a latent anti-Muslim racism.

For many Israeli Arabs, Bnei Sakhnin is one of the only symbols of Arab Israeli identity. Sakhnin fans see themselves as marginalised outsiders disliked by their fellow countrymen, not to mention their Arab neighbours who view them with suspicion for not going into "noble exile". Beitar fans see themselves as the true sons of Israel, and consider Israel's "20" an aberration, as fifth columnists.

"The rivalry is clearly based on the Arab-Israeli conflict," explains Jeremy Last, sports editor for the Jerusalem Post. "Beitar is a club whose fans have always had strong links to right-wing political groups and who have a deep distrust, and in some cases hatred, of the Arabs. Sakhnin is the one Arab club which has had success in recent years, and their prominence in Israeli football has fuelled the rivalry."

One man intimately acquainted with the rivalry is Abbas Suan. Suan was Sakhnin's talisman and captain until 2006, and led the team to victory through its most successful period - a stint in the top flight, silverware in the form of the national cup, and a brief foray into Europe. He came to worldwide prominence after scoring the late, late equalising goal against Ireland in the qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup.T

he goal briefly kept alive Israel's chances, transforming him overnight to a hero for the whole country. It even got him a nomination as a Time "Man of the Year". He came to earth with a bump a week later when Sakhnin travelled to Beitar for the next league match. The fans unfurled a banner that proclaimed "Suan, you are not one of us" before singing that they "hoped he would die of cancer soon".

After one derby, he was attacked. "It was the most horrible scene I've witnessed in football, and I was really frightened," he told me when I met him at his family home in Sakhnin. "I was sitting in the TV studio and the fans of Beitar started throwing stones and rioting. They managed to break into the studio. We lost 3-0. Why were they rioting?"

Oddly, Suan almost signed for Beitar in 2006. The club's owner, Arkadi Gaydamak, the controversial Russian-born billionaire with political ambitions who also gives money to keep Bnei Sakhnin afloat, sounded out Suan about a move to the Teddy. When the fans heard of this treachery, there were demonstrations and riots. Unsurprisingly, the move fell through and he went to Maccabi Haifa instead.
Yet for the all the political rivalries, Israeli football is slowly changing. Money has flooded the game. Following the model of the English Premiership, it seems that a team can't compete without the patronage of a billionaire sugar-daddy like Gaydamak or Daniel Jammer, the owner of Maccabi Netanya, whose money helped the team to a second-place finish last season and helped attract a new high-profile manager in the form of German legend Lothar Matthaus.

Yet the one fixture that stubbornly refuses to be defused is when Sakhnin play Beitar. Perhaps it is a hardening of attitudes that keeps it alive. Israel's Arabs, after all, are the most visible example of the oft-quoted demographic time-bomb. The 20 will soon be the 22; the sector is growing at a faster rate than Israel's Jewish population.

If this has emboldened Sakhnin's fans, it is only natural that Beitar's hard core would dig their heels in further, much to the disgust of Gaydamak, who has tried to kick out the racism at his club by first trying to sign Suan and then part-bankrolling Sakhnin. "I am the team and I have no intention to sell it. The idiot bastards can leave," Gaydamak told Army Radio after last season's pitch invasion.

He could perhaps find solace in another of Israel's first-division football clubs. Bnei Yehuda is the Beitar of Tel Aviv: their supporters are largely of Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) descent, vote Likud and are avowedly nationalistic. Yet even they have grasped a nettle that Beitar fans refuse to. "We didn't have any Arabs play for us until four years ago, and the one we signed wasn't very good," explains Avi, a member of Bnei Yehuda's Parliament fan group. "As long as he's good, we don't care now. Beitar hate the Arabs, but we are a little more realistic. After all, if someone comes and f***s me in the a***, it hurts, sure. But the second time he does it, it doesn't hurt so much. We've had an Arab [Muslim] player once, next time it'll hurt a little bit less."

On Saturday, the lid will again be lifted on Israel's internal discourse and prove, once again, that football is much more than just a game.

When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone is published by Mainstream at £10.99

    Last updated: 5:19pm, August 28 2008