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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 August, 2004, 09:35 GMT 10:35 UK
Sakhnin's success brings cheers and jeers
The BBC's James Reynolds
By James Reynolds
BBC correspondent in Sakhnin

They train at the end of a dirt road, on a pitch surrounded by olive groves amid the hills of Israel's Galilee region. They are the Arab team of Bnei Sakhnin, the winners of the Israeli Cup.

Fans watch Sakhnin players at training
The team's cup win became a matter of pride for Arab Israelis
They have qualified to play in the Uefa Cup - it is the first time an Arab team from Israel has ever got this far.

"It's important for me and for all the Arabs in Israel and all the people who believe in peace and co-existence," says Shuwan Abbas, the team captain.

"I think it's very important for the whole country to know how to practice co-existence."

For the fans watching the team in training, Sakhnin's victories have had a tremendous effect. The million Arab citizens living inside the Jewish state have long felt ignored. But now they feel they have something to be proud of.

"Sakhnin is a symbol for all the Arab minority inside Israel," says one fan. "It has 1.25 million people cheering for it. If the team wins, it's as if all the Arabs in this country win."

Praise, indifference, hostility

Many officials are happy as well. They see the team's success as a sign of Israel's strength as a multi-ethnic democracy.

In the team there are Jews, Muslims, Christians - terrific!
Ronnie Bar-On
Likud MP
"They are an Israeli team representing Israel," says Ronnie Bar-On, who represents the right-wing Likud party in the Israeli parliament.

"Nevertheless they are from an Arab town. In the team there are Jews, Muslims, Christians - terrific!"

But those who cover the team every day see a different story.

Yoav Goren, who reports on Sakhnin for Israel's Haaretz newspaper, has watched over the past year as the Arab team's success has been met with curiosity, indifference and sometimes even hostility among Israel's Jewish majority.

He remembers one recent match against a team from Tel Aviv. "It wasn't football, it was war," he says.

"There were helicopters in the sky. When I got to the game it was like being in Lebanon. You felt like you were in the army on operation. didn't like it."

'Death of Israeli football'

The Jewish state watched in surprise in May as Sakhnin won the Israeli cup.

Sharon Mashdi has kept a close eye on Israel's reaction. He monitors racism in Israeli football for the New Israel Fund.

Sakhnin has succeeded in a professional way, but in a social way it's been a failure
Yoav Goren,
Football journalist
The Arab team's victory, he says, went down particularly badly with fans of Betar Jerusalem, a team known for its ties to Israel's right wing.

"After the cup final the Betar Jerusalem fans put an ad on the Internet about the death of Israeli football," he says.

"I think it's like what's happened in Israeli society - some percentage of the Jews don't like Arabs at all and don't want them here in this country."

Problems

Such is the political climate right now that few in Israel want to go all that far in backing the Arab team.

Sakhnin does not have its own stadium. And it has found it tough to get sponsors.

Sakhnin captain Shuwan Abbas
Captain Shuwan Abbas hopes his team carries hope for the future
"This is the biggest problem of Sakhnin," says Goren of Haaretz.

"Jewish companies don't sponsor Sakhnin. No-one from the Jewish business community said: 'Let's take Sakhnin and make it a symbol for peace, for living together'.

"Sakhnin has succeeded in a professional way, but in a social way it's been a failure."

For many that is no great surprise. One football team cannot in itself change the make-up of a divided society.

And this Thursday night, most in Israel will have other plans. But the Arabs of this country will watch as their team walks out to play in Europe, representing the flag of the Star of David.


SEE ALSO:
Israeli Arabs win first soccer cup
19 May 04  |  Middle East


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