Letter from Sakhnin: Field of Dreams and Identity
Israel’s one-time national soccer champions, Bnei Sakhnin have been the object of adulation and pride, as well as vilification.
“Run faster!” shouts a coach in Arabic and then Hebrew as the soccer players thunder down a grassy training field, their legs moving in a unified blur.
They are members of Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin, a professional soccer team from a small Arab town nestled in the heart of the Galilee. They took the country—and perhaps themselves—by surprise when they won the Israeli national championship against Hapoel Haifa in May 2004. Their victory was the first ever for an Arab Israeli team, and the media quickly dubbed them “Cinderellas in Soccer Cleats.” Bnei Sakhnin went on to represent Israel in the UEFA Cup (The Union des Associations Européennes de Football), beating Albania before losing to a top English team.
Bnei Sakhnin has been notorious for an aggressive, intimidating style—they are fast, with no shortage of fouls. More recently, they had cut back on the rough, take-no-prisoners attitude, playing with fluid, strong passes at high speed.
Still, next season (which begins in August and ends in May), will see the team moving down from the premier league, where it has been since 2003, to the second, or national, league. On April 29, Bnei Sakhnin lost 1-0 to Maccabi Petah Tikva, thus clinching its changed status. To have remained in the premier league, it would have had to finish among the top 10 of 12 teams, and it had fallen to last place. At the end of every season, the two teams that finish last in the premier league are bumped to the national league. The national league’s top two teams, in turn, advance to the premier league. The lowest league is called nationwide; there are also countless small regional leagues.
In April, Bnei Sakhnin hired its third coach of the season, Shaye Feigenbaum. The 58-year-old came to Sakhnin with a reputation for pulling losing teams out of a slump; he last coached Hapoel Tel Aviv and has brought five teams into the premier league. Feigenbaum blames the team’s poor showing on earlier decisions to replace several top players with mediocre ones. Comparing the construction of a team to that of a home, he said, “If you don’t build a house well, it won’t last. I think the owners need to act quickly to build a team….”
Though there is now frustration at the demotion, it does not erase the pride of Bnei Sakhnin’s earlier triumphs in a sport that captures roughly as much interest in Israel as do baseball and football combined in the United States. Bnei Sakhnin is one of only three Arab soccer teams to have made it to Israel’s top league. The Nazareth Ilit team, Maccabi Ahi Nazareth, joined in 2003 and was, with Sakhnin, at the bottom of the premier league; they followed in the footsteps of the Taybe team that qualified for one season in 1997.
Wearing their red-and-white uniforms, bnei Sakhnin players are revered as heroes not just on the winding streets of isolated Sakhnin but by Arabs throughout Israel.
“It’s an amazing experience,” said fan Fadi Badarni, 23, who was born and grew up in Sakhnin, a town of about 25,000. “All Arab residents of Israel support the team, and now many of the Jews do as well. It [gives us] a real sense of pride.” Badarni tries to get to every game.
Shadi Zbidat, 27, a player who was also born in Sakhnin, noted how it feels to play on a team that has become the de facto national Arab team in Israel. “You play more from your heart,” he said.
If soccer put Sakhnin on the map, gaining Arab Israelis respect and legitimacy as players and citizens, many hope it will put the town’s social and economic needs on the map, too.
Mazen Ghanim, 49, an Arab building contractor and former soccer player, is the team’s volunteer general manager. “We symbolize many things,” he said. “First of all, the great pride of a small team and a small town and its many achievements…. But the hope is that it can give voice to [Arab]…issues such as better budgets, better infrastructure and schools.”
Sakhnin’s municipal spokesman, Gazal Abu Raya, echoed Ghanim. “We hope the majority and public opinion will show more empathy and identification with our needs,” he said. Arabs account for almost 20 percent of Israel’s population, but many live under the poverty line and feel disenfranchised by the government and Jewish majority. Like other Arab towns, Sakhnin suffers from high unemployment and a cash-strapped municipality.
Ghanim had worked doggedly to keep the team at a high enough level to stay in the country’s top league. Sakhnin barely qualified last year.
Even before its April loss, tension among the team’s disappointed fans was running high, their anger directed at Ghanim. After one defeat, some fans pushed and shoved one of his sons. “It takes more than talk to win, it also takes money,” an enraged Ghanim shouted at the angry crowd. He said recruiting the best players and coaches is difficult because the team’s budget is $2.4 million, about half the average. Teams depend on a variety of benefactors for support. A few players work as teachers to supplement their salaries.
Bnei sakhnin is predominantly Muslim; 11 of its 22 players are Arab, from Sakhnin or neighboring villages. Its six Jewish players come from across the country. There are also five foreigners from Poland, Romania, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Serbia. Of the three assistant coaches, two are Arab, one is Jewish.
Mixed teams are not unique to Bnei Sakhnin; most soccer teams in Israel’s top leagues have both Arab and Jewish players. Still, Sakhnin is known for being a tight-knit and cohesive unit, describing itself as a family. “Through sports you can see we can exist together,” said Geva Barkai, 27, a Jewish player from Kibbutz Eilon. “If only it could be this way in the rest of the country….”
Meir Cohen, 34, from Beit Shean, is another Jewish team member. He said he has been impressed by how well he and the other Jews have been treated by the people of Sakhnin. “It does not matter who is Jewish, Arab or Christian; I feel at home here,” said Cohen, who has been with the team for four years.
Until last year, the team did not enjoy a proper stadium and had to play home games in neighboring Beit Shean. Now there is a new 4,500-seat complex, built with money from the government and corporate donations. Arcadi Gaydamak, a wealthy Russian Jewish financier who lives in Moscow, donated $400,000. The government of Qatar has promised a planned $6 million addition to expand seating.
There is irony in juxtaposing Sakhnin’s soccer reputation against its historical notoriety. The town was the heart of what became known as “Land Day,” the day in March 1976 when locals and neighboring Arabs gathered in Sakhnin to march in protest against government plans to expropriate Arab land. Three of the six Israelis Arabs killed that day in the violent clashes that followed the march were from Sakhnin. The town regularly commemorates those who died. Almost 25 years later, when Arabs throughout Israel demonstrated in solidarity with Palestinians at the start of the second intifada in September 2000, 3 of the 13 young men killed by Israeli police were from Sakhnin.
Tamir Sorek, a sociologist at Cornell University who recently published Arab Soccer in the Jewish State (in Hebrew, Magnes Press; an English version will soon be published by Cambridge University Press), noted the significance of a relatively small, isolated place such as Sakhnin taking a leading role in two watershed events.
Yet, despite the history of politicization and protest in Sakhnin, Sorek said soccer fans “do not let these protests penetrate the soccer field because this is a place they want recognition from Jewish Israelis…. [Soccer is] a way to be part of Israeliness without abandoning Arab pride.”
This is in contrast to other soccer teams that represent national minorities. For instance, the Basque club in Madrid and the Berber in Algeria use the soccer field as a stage for publicizing national identity.
In fact, in recent years soccer spirit seems to have replaced political struggle in Sakhnin. Zbidat said the example the team’s Arab players set by getting along so well with their Jewish teammates has had an effect on their fans’ level of tolerance.
“We think having Jews on our team helps [make] peace,” Zbidat said. “Sports can help us reach a point of peace and living together.”
The camaraderie of Bnei Sakhnin players is strikingly different than the racist slogans hurled at them from the stands, especially when they play Beitar Jerusalem, the only team in the country to have banned Arabs on their squad. Players say they try to drown out chants such as “Death to Arabs” by focusing on the game.
Abbas Suwan, 30, Bnei Sakhnin’s captain and sure-footed midfielder, briefly became a national hero in spring 2005 when he scored a goal against Ireland while playing for the Israeli national team in a World Cup qualifying game. The goal, made in the game’s final minutes, tied the match and gave Israel its first chance in 35 years to qualify.
But the following week, when Suwan and Bnei Sakhnin faced Beitar Jerusalem, he was roundly jeered and greeted with a large sign reading: “Abbas Suwan—you do not represent us.”
Suwan has said he is not deterred by the taunting and sees himself as a representative of all Israelis, both Arabs and Jews.
Ghanim said Bnei Sakhnin tries to lead by example. “We are Arab Palestinians but we are also citizens of the country and soccer players,” he explained. “We [show] how to perform as athletes while leaving the flags and racists slurs on the sideline.”
Jerrold Kessel, a former CNN reporter who recently coproduced We Have No Other Land, a documentary on Bnei Sakhnin, said Suwan’s goal was emblematic of the challenge to Israeli society posed by Arab success in soccer.
“The great goal crystallized the whole thing of ‘Are they part of us or is it only on the soccer field?’” Kessel noted. “After the goal, Abbas Suwan was hailed as a Gibor Yisrael, a term you apply to David or Samson or Moshe Dayan, someone who saves the nation, a real hero of the Jews. And it was being applied to an Arab Israeli, something unheard of. There was a feeling of maybe this is really recognition, maybe this would change attitudes—and then a week later comes the sobering [up] as Beitar fans boo.”
Meir Cohen has also been bitterly cursed by Jewish fans with taunts including “Meir Cohen is a Muslim.” “It hurts a bit,” he acknowledged, “but it happens in other places in the world as well.”
In fact, racist taunts are common at European soccer stadiums. For example, fans often make monkey noises toward black players.
Though it is not clear how the success of Arab teams has influenced Israeli Jewish perceptions of Arabs in the country, it has drawn Jewish fans.
“This is not just any soccer team—they have national importance,” said Itzik Gershoni, a Jewish Israeli who lives near Sakhnin and rarely misses a game. “As someone who wants to further equality and human rights and also loves soccer, I got involved.”
Mundar Haleileh, the manager of a public-health fund in Sakhnin, volunteers his time as Bnei Sakhnin’s spokesman. He said Sakhnin has an important role because its games are one of the few places Arabs and Jews cross paths in a social setting.
“I think it has woken people up to what we share,” he said. “The only place large numbers of Arabs and Jews meet is at soccer games.”
Both feigenbaum and abbas suwan see next year as one of rebuilding. “I hope we will be able to pave a new path for our team, one that will allow us to return to the premier league,” Suwan said. “I hope that, unlike some teams that are relegated and fall apart, we will succeed in staying together and united.”
For his part, Feigenbaum would like to stay on. He observed that “this does not need to be a tragedy. If we build a good team, all this could be a matter of just 10 months in the second league before we return.”
As he feels the sting of the team’s loss, Suwan finds himself looking back to their victory in 2004.
“What we did in 2003-2004 was incredible,” he declared. “We did amazing things that we will remember forever and pass on to our children. It is something we can be proud of always.”