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Review: Goals for Galilee

Could on-pitch enmity bring amity off it?

    Black-and-white and red all over: Bnei Sakhnin fans in Newcastle in 2004
    Black-and-white and red all over: Bnei Sakhnin fans in Newcastle in 2004

    By Jerold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler
    JR Books, £18.99

    Bnei Sakhnin may just be the club that disproves the old cliché that football, the World Cup notwithstanding, is "only a game".

    For Sakhnin's largely Arab-Israeli supporters, the fortunes of the club mean much more than 90 minutes on a Saturday. For Bnei Sakhnin's rise has become equated with its fans' identity, self-esteem and desperate wish to be accepted as equals.

    Former JC correspondent Jerold Kessler and his co-author Pierre Klochendler followed the club's fans, players and staff through an entire season following its historic breakthrough in 2004, when Sakhnin won the State Cup, Israel's version of the FA Cup.

    This was a remarkable achievement for a team situated in a backwater of 25,000 inhabitants, whose stadium was considered too small and ramshackle for football in Israel's top-flight.

    Until Sakhnin's victory, any report about Arabs in Israel would be "disorderly news". But after that cup triumph, for the first time, Arab-Israelis were making the headlines for the right reasons. They felt good about being both Arabs and Israelis and challenged Jewish Israelis to accept them as equals. It was all done with a sense of humour - when trouncing ultra-nationalist Betar Jerusalem, the Sakhnin fans wore the Israeli flag like a talit while taunting their rivals with chants of Allah Hu-akhbar.

    Sakhnin went on to represent their country in the Uefa Cup - going out honourably to the then Premiership giants, Newcastle United. Star player Abbas Suan became, fleetingly, an Israeli hero when he scored a last-minute equaliser for his country against the Republic of Ireland in a World Cup qualifier. This was such a momentous event that Arab nationalist journalist and Sakhnin fan Mahmoud Ghalia was shocked to wake up the following morning realising he had brought an Israeli flag into bed with him.

    The authors ask if football could achieve what politicians have failed to deliver - a truly integrated society. Sadly, the feelgood factor supplied by Sakhnin so far seems to have been transient. However, as an examination of the hopes, fears and conflicted identity of Arab Israelis, Goals for Galilee is an engrossing - and uplifting - read.

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