Soccer Can't Fix Shit in Israel or Anywhere Else

September 18, 2014 | 7:25 PM



In the summer of 2004, Bnei Sakhnin became the first 
Arab Israeli soccer team to win the State Cup, a knockout 
tournament comparable to England's FA Cup. The Israeli 
paperHaaretz called it the "first major sporting success 
of an Israel-Arab club," including the first UEFA Champions 
League spot for an Arab club. The news made 
international headlinesand was a source of pride amongst 
Arab Israelis.
Bnei Sakhnin's success further attracted global attention 
due to the team's message of coexistence. Despite playing
in a predominantly Muslim 25,000-person town, Sakhnin
had a Jewish manager, three Jewish players, and played
the Israeli National Anthem before matches. Bnei Sakhnin's
captain and star player, Abbas Suan, became a national hero
amongst Arabs and Jews alike when he scored a key goal
for Israel's national team against Ireland.

This wasn't exactly a peaceful time in the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict (not that there really is such a thing), but, for once,
the term "soccer diplomacy" seemed to actually mean
author James Montague describes Arab Israelis as "viewed
suspiciously both by their Jewish countrymen (for being pro-
Palestinian fifth columnists) and by the wider Arab world (for
being Zionist collaborators)." Over the phone, Montague
emphasized that there were very few symbols of Arab equality
within Israel at the time, giving Bnei Sahknin an important role
for the approximately 1.5 million Arabs within Israel's borders.
"Sakhnin is a symbol for all the Arab minority inside Israel,"
one fan told the BBC in 2004. "If the team wins, it's as if all the
Arabs in this country win."

You would think a team with 1.5 million supporters wouldn't
have trouble finding sponsors, yet a reporter for Haaretz told BBC 
that "Jewish companies don't sponsor Sakhnin." Indeed, the club
has had trouble staying financially afloat, partly because few Israeli
soccer teams are financially sound. James Dorsey, author of the
via email that "Palestinian clubs in the Israeli Premier League will
find winning sponsorship more difficult."

Like in many other leagues, some Israeli clubs stay afloat through
wealthy benefactors willing to sink significant funds into the team.
Russian-Israeli billionaire Arcadi Gaydamak donated $400,000 to
Bnei Sakhnin in 2005, and another $440,000 after Sakhnin's
relegation the following year. This was a remarkable gesture
considering Gaydamak owned ultra-right wing club Beitar
Jerusalem, whose supporters proudly state the club has never
employed an Arab. "I am donating NIS 2 million toward
coexistence, fraternity and peace between Arabs and Jews in
Israel," Gaydamak told Haaretz. "Soccer is important to a lot of
people in Israel, and I wish to take advantage of this to bring
the two peoples closer."

Still, the oddest influx of cash came from one of the 32 United
Nations member states that does not recognize Israel. In 2006,
after years of playing its 
shabby state of its home grounds, Bnei Sakhnin received $6
million from Qatar Sports Investments for its stadium, since
renamed Doha Stadium. In July, Qatar 
announced another round of funding to the tune of $2.5 million,
or more than half of the team's annual budget.

According to Montague, Qatar wants to be a "diplomatic hub,"
acting as a mediator between the United States, Israel, Hamas,
and the Muslim Brotherhood, among others. Despite not
officially recognizing Israel, Qatar is one of the few Muslim nations
that allows Israeli athletes to compete on their soil. "The
investment in the stadium in 2006 fit into its foreign policy that
seeks to play a mediator's role as a way of maintaining good
relations with all parties and projecting Qatar as a good
international citizen," Dorsey told me. "The same goes for the
more recent investments in Israeli Palestinian soccer clubs."

But over the last decade, Jewish attitudes towards Bnei
Sakhnin and other Arab Israeli clubs have become more
extreme, reflecting a general shift across Israeli politics.
According to Foreign Policy, right wing parties would win
56 seats in the next election, a 13-seat increase over last
year, while the center-left would shrink by 11 seats.
As a result, much of the goodwill from Bnei Sakhnin's success
has been undone. In a match against Beitar Jerusalem last
December, Al-Monitor reported that Sakhnin fans waved
Palestinian flags and Beitar supporters ripped and burned a
Quran. The post-match focus was not on the burning of holy
 texts, but the waving of flags. Miri Regev, a right-wing
Knesset member, wrote on her Facebook page, "The situation
where a [soccer] club receives support from the State of
Israel as part of its sports-sponsorship policy, while the club
fans are waving the flags of Palestine, is unacceptable."
According to Al-Monitor, she vowed to introduce legislation
to expel Bnei Sakhnin from the Israeli Premier League.
Beitar has always abused Arab Israeli clubs—the chants in
2004 were "Death to the Arabs," although Beitar is similarly
cruel to left-wing Jewish clubs—but the Gaza War in
2008-09 was a turning point of sorts as the far-right
expanded to encompass much of Israeli politics. As usual,
the problems extend far beyond soccer.

The 2009 election in Israel saw a shift to the right among
Jewish Israelis. A conservative coalition led by Benjamin
Netanyahu took power and enacted a strategy of isolating
Gaza financially, politically, and militarily with the intent of
neutralizing Hamas. Qatar's continued financing of Hamas
did not bode well for popular sentiment of a team that plays
in a building called Doha Stadium.

Neither have rising tensions between Israeli Jews and Israeli
Arabs. Palestinian Knesset member Hanin Zoabi is
serving a six-month ban from Knesset debates for saying on
a radio interview that the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers
wasn't terrorism. She is now under investigation for "inciting
others to violence and insulting two police officers" during an
anti-war political rally, according to The Times of Israel.

Arab-Israelis have always had to live with tension between
their heritage and their country of residence—tension that is
only increasing. Montague pointed out that in the last few years,
the West Bank Premier League has become an increasingly
attractive destination for Arab Israeli players who no longer
tolerate the rampant racism in the Israeli league. (The West
Bank league doesn't allow foreign players, except for Arab
Israelis, and has comparable wages to the Israeli league.)
Further, Jewish players have become more skittish about
joining an Arab Israeli team. Bnei Sakhnin, once the model
for cooperation, no longer has any Jewish players. The
problem is not that Sakhnin is no longer an outlier, but that it
ever had to be one. As a Sakhnin fan told the
New York Times Magazine in 2011, "for us, soccer is the only
place we're equal in this stinking country.


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