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Shooting for equality – on the soccer field and off

Posted By Daniel Ben Tal On May 15, 2005 @ 9:00 pm In | No Comments

The united club is an important test-case in Arab-Jewish coexistence, and we intend to pass that test – Alon Liel.Israeli Arab soccer players have made tremendous inroads in the game in recent years, and now are featured on the roster of almost every Premier League club in the country.

Numerous Arab players star in the national team alongside their Jewish teammates, and have made headlines by scoring critical goals in important international matches.

But the Ichud (United) Abu Ghosh-Mevasseret of the fourth league has taken coexistence one step further by forming Israel’s first combined Jewish-Arab club that is explicitly more than just about soccer.

“We are not engaging ourselves in sport only. The united club is an important test-case in Arab-Jewish coexistence, and we intend to pass that test,” says the club’s president Alon Liel, a former Foreign Ministry director-general and the country’s ambassador to Turkey.

Liel bases his belief in the power of soccer to bring communities together on his experiences in South Africa. During the 1980s, Liel lobbied within the foreign ministry to deepen ties with supporters of then-imprisoned civil rights leader Nelson Mandela. As a special envoy to the country from 1986 to 1988, he first made contact with black soccer teams.

“The South African Football Association was one of the strongest forces in the fight against apartheid. Through soccer, black South Africans achieved much. I’ve been a soccer fan since my childhood in Tel Aviv. Soccer is one of the few sectors of Israeli society in which Arab citizens can reach the very top of their profession on the national level,” Liel told ISRAEL21c, noting that last season, for the first time in Israel’s history, an Israeli Arab club, Ichud Bnei Sakhnin, won the national knock-out competition, the State Cup.

“When Bnei Sakhnin made it into the top league and won the cup, I saw it as a way for Arabs to achieve equality,” he says.

Essentially a satellite commuter suburb of Jerusalem, Mevasseret Zion has expanded in recent years and now numbers 25,000 residents. The population of neighboring Abu Ghosh and the nearby Arab villages Ein Rafah and Ein Nakura totals about 10,000.

“Our area is one of normal life and coexistence. Abu Ghosh has extensive business connections with Mevasseret, and everybody appreciates the cooperation with our neighbors,” says Abu Ghosh local council head and club co-chairman Salim Jabber.

“The club is attracting growing interest, and many young players in Abu Ghosh want to join the team. The only criterion is that they are good players. They need much training and investment. The players from Mevasseret players are more experienced,” he told ISRAEL21c.

“There is greater excitement in Abu Ghosh than in Mevasseret,” admits Liel, who has lived in the Jewish town for ten years. “Jews aren’t interested in local soccer. There’s no local patriotism – everyone here supports Betar or Hapoel Jerusalem. Hapoel Mevasseret Zion has existed for 25 years but never achieved anything. The local community didn’t stand behind the team. The club has a field with one stand for 250 spectators – but that’s still more than Abu Ghosh has.”

For years, Hapoel Mevasseret Zion languished in the sixth division (leaga gimmel). “We had the infrastructure but no interest. The original idea was to take six or seven good players from Abu Ghosh to strengthen the squad,” says Liel.

The idea spawned a meeting last October in Abu Ghosh, where the club’s management structure was set down: four directors from Abu Ghosh and four from Mevaseret, each with mutual right of veto.
A senior squad of 25 players was elected – 15 Jews and 10 Arabs.

“There’s nothing special in that nowadays – but this is the only club in the country – and in the world – based on a 50-50 management partnership between Jews and Arabs. All the Arab players are defenders and the Jews are attackers – it wasn’t intended, it just worked out like that,” says Liel.

The team also features one non-Israeli player, full back Allah Awad from the Jabal Mukaber neighborhood of east Jerusalem. The two youth teams have also been united, and compete under the joint banner in a local youth league.

The senior players first gathered for training three days before the season began late last October. After a series of disastrous results, the team gradually clawed its way out of the relegation zone before ending the campaign with a seven-game unbeaten run.

The penultimate game of the season, played in front of 600 fans, resulted in a 1-1 tie with Hapoel Lod that saw the highly rated visitors secure promotion to the third division (leaga artzit) for next season, and lifted the hosts clear of the relegation zone.

In the season’s final encounter on May 7, the players defeated Givat Zeev 2-1, with goalkeeper Haggai Maman opening the scoring from a 25-meter free kick and striker Oz Sabag pouncing for the winning goal five minutes from the end of the game.

Ichud Mevasseret-Abu Ghosh finished its inaugural season mid-table, in ninth place.

“This was a surprise because we’re the youngest team in the league,” says an elated Liel.

In February this year, a 17-strong squad of players flew to the town of Lahti in Finland, where they competed in an international soccer tournament for workers’ committees. The team exceeded all expectations by reaching the final, where they lost 1-0 to a team from Estonia.
Such success would have been impossible without a happy boardroom.

“The best part of the story is how the management has grown close. The team is excellently managed, and does not owe money to any tax authorities – unlike 90 percent of Israeli clubs. Dozens of small soccer clubs fold every year because of poor administration. Teams at this level have no form of income and cannot pay to advertise their games,” explains Liel.

“Local councils in Israel are much poorer than they used to be. In many cases, there’s no budget for sport. All our budget came from donations,” adds Liel, who used his diplomatic connections to secure funding for the club.

“Six foreign embassies are helping us: the Americans, Swiss, the EU, Dutch, Turkish and especially the British, to whom soccer is a religion. This includes donating all our equipment. It would have been impossible with out their help. At least six diplomats have visited games, because they support Jewish-Arab cooperation.”

Liel recently returned from a fundraising trip to Britain. “There I met a good London Jew who brought me sacks of soccer kit – so much that I couldn’t bring it all with me back to Israel.”

Now that it has the combined backing of both communities, a bright future is expected for the Ichud Abu Ghosh-Mevasseret soccer team.

“We will continue to support the club, as it brings us much honor. I’m looking forward to the team having a successful future,” says Jabber.

Mevasseret mayor Carmi Gilon and Jabber have talked of eventually merging the whole scope of sport and recreation activities if this project succeeds, bringing the two communities closer together.

“It’s not an easy project,” admits Liel. “Many Jews hate Arabs. They grew up in an anti-Arab atmosphere, although they realize that we have to coexist. The coexistence is working out. The players just needs time to settle. I hope the joint energies of both communities will push them forward.”


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