Publish date:

Stars of David

Even in the shadow of recent violence, two Arabs have become heroes of Israel's surprising soccer team. Next Saturday, in Switzerland, Israel could all but clinch a World Cup berth in the nation's most important sporting event in three decades

In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.  --David Ben-Gurion, former Israeli prime minister

On the night the Arab saved Israel, it only took one magical kick, a low-driven strike that in less volatile precincts might have been called a missile or a bomb or a daisy-cutter. Four years ago Abbas Suan was a minor league soccer player who moonlighted in construction to support his family. Today, at 29, he's the most popular Arab in Israel, a smiling McDonald's pitchman and the namesake of uncounted newborns, not least because of that remarkable shot on a March night in Tel Aviv's Ramat-Gan Stadium. As Israel's World Cup hopes were fading, Suan unleashed a scorching 22-yard goal in the 90th minute, giving the home side a 1-1 tie against Ireland and keeping alive the most compelling underdog story of the 2006 Cup.

On the night the Arab saved Israel, an entire World Cup--crazy nation rejoiced. From Haifa to Nazareth to the Negev, one in three Israelis watched on television as Suan dropped to his knees, kissed the ground and thanked Allah just before his teammates--all but one of them Jewish--smothered him in a gang tackle of ecstasy. In Sakhnin, Suan's hometown, the soccer mecca of Arab Israel, devout Muslims clogged the streets, honked their horns and filled the sky with fireworks. In Tel Aviv 40,000 Israelis exulted behind handmade signs (NO FEAR, ULTRAS ISRAEL, ISRA HELL) and turned the sold-out national stadium into a blue-and-white cauldron, the air filled with confetti, crepe paper and rapturous noise.

For one glorious instant all the divisive voices were silent: the Jewish extremists in Jerusalem who'd unfurled a banner reading abbas suan, you don't represent us; the Islamic extremists on Al-Jazeera who'd accused him of collaborating with "the Zionist enemy"; all those lip-readers, Arabs and Jews alike, who stare at his mouth like detectives (ah ha!) during the national anthem he refuses to sing. "The greatest moment of my life," proclaimed Suan of his role in the team's comeback, which he celebrated by literally wrapping himself in the Star of David flag.

Then, four nights later in Tel Aviv--can you believe it!--an Arab saved Israel again. This time the team's other prominent Muslim, 31-year-old midfielder Walid Badir, headed home the equalizer in the dying minutes to salvage a 1-1 tie against mighty France, and the celebrations raged once more. Imagine: Israel, tiny Israel, undefeated in seven qualifying games, is on the brink of reaching its first World Cup in 36 years--this one to be held in Germany, the most symbolic of venues--and two of the men are Arabs who've heard racist taunts their entire careers. "My biggest dream is to get to the World Cup," says Suan, whose team can take a giant step toward clinching a berth with a win at Switzerland on Sept. 3. "After that, I don't know if there will be anything left to dream about."

During the violence of the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000 and lasted for five years, right-wing Israeli nationalists had an exclusionary slogan for the country's 1.2 million Arab citizens, Palestinians who make up nearly one-fifth of the population: No Arabs, no terrorism. In the days after Suan and Badir saved Israel, a new chant echoed inside a Tel Aviv stadium: No Arabs, no World Cup.

In the more liberal quarters of Israel's Jewish majority and Hebrew media, the reaction was by turns festive and ironic. GOYIM EQUAL GOLIM! (Non-Jews equal goals!), rang one headline, while wry cultural commentators joked after Suan's equalizing strike, "Finally an Israeli Arab gets equality." The head of one civil rights group went so far as to suggest that Suan and Badir's goals could bring increased respect to Arab members of the Knesset.

But many Jews would rather not focus on the goal scorers' ethnicity. "We have Jewish players and we have Arab players, but they are all Israeli players," says Itche Menachem, the president of the Israeli Soccer Federation. "Soccer can be a bridge to coexistence. It's a bridge that we've started building; we're on it, and we'll complete it. Someday the time will come when an Arab scores a goal, but they won't say he's an Arab. They'll just give the name, and he will be another member of the team."

"To me the [Arab] goals were natural," says Mordechai Shpigler, the star of Israel's 1970 World Cup team. "It was supposed to happen, and it's good that it happened. There can be no better proof of normalization. It's better than any ambassador making fancy speeches about coexistence."

Israeli Arabs, however, contend that their country is a long way from reaching "normalization." Descendants of the 150,000 Palestinians who remained inside Israel's boundaries after the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war, they carry Israeli passports and enjoy full voting rights, but they don't serve in the military, and many complain of discrimination in political and social life. Distrust, they say, comes from both Israeli Jews and non-Israeli Palestinians who don't regard them as full members of their side in the decadeslong conflict. As Suan's brother Isam puts it, "In Israel, Abbas is called an Arab, and they curse him while he plays. But the Palestinians make a joke out of his playing for Israel. And Abbas is stuck in the middle."

But what if Suan and Badir somehow used their status to help forge common ground? As the captain of Bnei Sakhnin, his plucky, underfinanced pro team, Suan was already an icon among Arab fans, who had followed the side's remarkable 11-year rise from Israel's fifth division to the Premier League. In May 2004 Suan led Sakhnin to the championship of Israel's State Cup, a knockout tournament modeled on England's FA Cup. It was an unprecedented feat by a team from Israel's Arab sector, the equivalent, roughly, of a historically black college winning the NCAA basketball crown during the Civil Rights era. "I think Sakhnin is the most important project of [Israel's] Arab people in maybe 20 years," says Zouheir Bahloul, a leading Israeli-Arab commentator. "It's not just a sports story; it's a wonderful message for the Israeli people."

In May, under crushing pressure to keep Sakhnin in the Premier League, Suan came through by guiding the team to victory on the final weekend. None of Israel's Arab teams (which compose about 30% of the nation's pro ranks) had ever lasted two years in the Premier League. With an Arab owner, a Jewish coach and a mélange of players--12 Israeli Arabs, seven Israeli Jews and four foreigners--Sakhnin has "turned the attitude of Jews to Arabs in this country on its head," former prime minister Shimon Peres recently told the newspaper Haaretz.

Thanks to his performance in World Cup qualifying, Suan has also changed the attitude of Israeli Arabs toward their country's side. "When there were no Arabs playing on the national team, they didn't pay attention," he says. "Now in all the Arab communities of Israel they watch the games, and they feel like they are part of it. People used to tell me they didn't mind if the national team lost because they didn't have any interest, but now that I'm there they want the national team to succeed."

Still, Suan has been subjected to threats and taunts, which he has handled with dignified restraint. Racism is so common in Israeli soccer stadiums that the New Israel Fund, which provides financial help to civil rights groups, sends monitors to every league match and releases a weekly Racism Index to the media. (The right-wing supporters of Betar Jerusalem are the two-time defending "champions.") Sure enough, during a national-team friendly against Croatia at Betar Jerusalem's stadium last February, fans whistled every time Suan touched the ball. (One favorite chant, Abbas Suan should get cancer, rhymes in Hebrew.) "I was really upset," says Suan's father, Said Hamad. "I said to him, 'Maybe you shouldn't play soccer anymore.' But Abbas was very gentle about it. He said, 'This is how soccer is here. Take it easy.' He had to calm down his own family members instead of the other way around."

Everywhere he turns, Suan sees barriers to improved relations, flashpoints that aren't easily cooled. Only three weeks ago, in advance of Israel's effort to remove Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, an AWOL Jewish soldier opened fire on a bus in the Arab town of Shefaram, just 10 miles from Sakhnin, killing four residents. But if there can be a team known as Manchester United, Suan asks, why not a team that is deserving of the nickname Israel United? The national-team players are doing their part, he says, and now the fans are following suit. After a recent vacation in Eilat, a tourist town on the Red Sea, he and his wife, Safaa, joked that more Jews than Arabs were asking for his autograph.

"Before the goal I felt that my support came more from the Arab population in Israel," says Suan, who wished his "Jewish brothers" a happy Purim holiday--in perfect Hebrew--during the media crush following his wonderstrike. "After the goal the whole nation supported me. Even some of the Betar fans called with congratulations."

On Sept. 3, Israel's date with World Cup destiny, more than six dozen members of Abbas Suan's extended family will pull out their plastic chairs and endure another nerve-racking watch party in the courtyard of the family compound in Sakhnin, a city of 24,000 in the Galilee region of northern Israel. "I'm the host, so I hardly have time to see the game," says Safaa, who's responsible not just for the treats (coffee, baklava, fresh pomegranates) but also for setting up the Barco projector and the outdoor video screen. "Thank God I was able to see his goal."

A year ago, only the most deluded optimists would have predicted that Israel's showdown with Switzerland would become the nation's most anticipated sporting event since that lone World Cup appearance in 1970. At a meeting in Dublin before qualifying began last year, Israel federation president Menachem listened as his more prestigious rivals in their six-team group--France, Ireland and Switzerland--argued over which one would get to pick up the quickest victory by hosting Israel first. Meanwhile, there was so little domestic interest in Israel's opener, against '98 world champion France, that for the first time in decades not one network bought the television rights.

The score from Paris: France 0, Israel 0.

Thus began one of the strangest and most riveting qualifying campaigns in World Cup history. Twenty games into the 30-match round-robin, the top four teams remain on dead-even pace: Each is undefeated, and each has claimed its only wins against lightweights Cyprus and the Faeroe Islands. The biggest surprise, of course, is Israel (2-0-5), which has captured the hearts of its supporters (and suddenly fawning TV execs) as the Cardiac Kids of the Mediterranean. Not only have the Israelis come from behind in five of their seven matches, but they've also scored the tying or winning goal three times in the game's final 10 minutes. It's enough to give a fan a raging case of shpilkes.

Much of the credit has gone to manager Avraham Grant, a self-professed NBA nut and motivational guru who has attended all but two of the past 17 NBA Finals. (If you look closely at a rerun of Game 7 in '88, you can see Grant peeking in on Pat Riley's huddle with the Los Angeles Lakers.) "We've tried to give our players the basis for dealing with the worst things that could come along," Grant says. "The point is to instill the feeling that you don't break down on the field, you don't give in." To drive that home Grant has shown the players their top highlights intercut with footage of Muhammad Ali, Lance Armstrong and Michael Jordan. On the team bus before Israel's last qualifier, in Dublin, Grant fired up the lads with a scene of Mel Gibson rallying his troops to war in Braveheart; after falling behind 2-0, Israel engineered a stunning 2-2 tie.

Grant has modeled his team on the same template--constant effort, stifling defense, unwavering teamwork--that Greece, the classic underdog, used to win last year's European championship. It's hardly the Beautiful Game, but you can't argue with the results. "This national team is not about star players; it's about playing together," says midfielder Idan Tal. "You've seen a change in world soccer with Greece and also with Korea and the U.S. doing so well at the last World Cup. Now everyone believes we can do it too. Just a little more effort, and we can go to the World Cup."

It won't be easy. Only the group's top finisher will qualify outright, with the runner-up advancing to a playoff with another group's second-place team for one of Europe's four remaining berths. Ireland has the most favorable remaining schedule, its two tough matches both coming at home. The Swiss have the best chance to play the spoiler, with three of their final four games against the Big Four. And the underperforming French will no doubt be buoyed by the return of Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele, proven stars who've ended their international retirements to try to save Les Bleus.

Israel has nowhere near the experience of those teams, and yet there's something special, maybe even historic, about this outfit. "In previous years, whenever Israel was involved in crucial matches, the fans always knew they would crack under the pressure," says Nir Kipnis, a longtime sportswriter for the magazine Blazer. "This team is different. They have more character." Win in Basel on Sept. 3, and the Israelis could begin planning for Germany, or at least a spot in the European playoffs. (Only two matches against the winless Faeroes would remain.) Tie, and because of their poor goal differential, their chances would be slim. Lose, and they would effectively be out.

Israel's press, conditioned by years of dashed hopes, is forecasting more heartbreak. Yet Shpigler, the only Israeli to have scored in a World Cup, says he has already imagined himself wearing a new suit to Israel's opener in Germany next year, already imagined sitting between Franz Beckenbauer and Pelé, his old New York Cosmos pals, in the VIP tribune. Mathematically, a tie in Basel won't eliminate Israel from contention, but.... "I realize that to get to the World Cup we have to win in Switzerland, and in order to win we have to be daring," Shpigler says. "It will be hard, but we can take them by surprise. You know, Basel is a place where wonderful things happen to us in history."

In a tale already rife with symbols, consider one more: Israel's day of reckoning will take place in the same city where, in 1897, Theodor Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress, the body that proposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Pessimists scoffed at that notion too. "So, you see, we are playing a home game in Basel!" Shpigler bellows, a smile lighting up his face. "I always say every qualifying campaign, now we are going to the World Cup again, but I was never right until today! Be careful, Brazil!"

Amid the joy and optimism, the question hangs in the air like the faint scent of gunpowder. If Israel makes it to the World Cup, the world's biggest sporting stage, would Abbas Suan and Walid Badir consider a high-profile protest, a symbolic statement like the famous black-power salute by African-American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City?

"Something like that has never happened in Israel," says Tamir Sorek, a Cornell sociology professor who has studied Israeli Arab soccer fans since 1998. "The Arabs in Israel very rarely use sports as a stage for national protest. For many of the Arab fans there are enough spheres of conflict for Arabs and Jews in Israel, and they want to keep the soccer sphere isolated from these conflicts."

That may be true, but not every leading Israeli Arab wants soccer to be a politics-free zone. "It's an opportunity to say to the whole world that we are the Arab minority in Israel, that it's an honor for us to play on the national team, and that we want coexistence but we are still living in a lot of difficulties," says Bahloul, a 30-year veteran of Israeli network television and the most respected Israeli Arab sports commentator. "There is a huge gap between the Arabs and the Jews in Israel. Our city budgets are lower. The infrastructure is not as developed. The poor and unemployed are much more common. You cannot separate sports from our lives."

What would you do if you were Abbas Suan? Would you dip your toe into the pool of protest, knowing that once you go there you can't come back? Would you tell your family's tragic story? How your father, as a boy, fled advancing Israeli forces with his family during the war in 1948. How they left behind their house, their furniture, their prized 175 acres of land. How they settled in Sakhnin, a poor Arab town, only to have your grandfather die prematurely, leaving a widow and eight children who worked 16-hour days to survive. How your father, now 68 and living in your house, can still show visitors the deeds to the family's land and wonder, 57 years later, if there will ever be reparations.

Would you use your platform as a sportsman? Or would it be wiser, safer, just to say nothing?

What would you do if you were Walid Badir? Would you dip your toe into the pool of protest? Would you tell your family's tragic story? How your grandfather Salim Ahmed was shot dead by Israeli police. How, in 1956, he and 46 other Arab peasants were killed in the notorious massacre at Kafr-Kassem. Would you use your platform as a sportsman? Or would it be wiser, safer, just to say nothing?

Two players, two triumphant symbols. So why, among Israeli Arabs, is only one of them beloved?

Walid Badir stands and fidgets, warily eyeing his questioner. For three weeks Badir has politely refused interview requests. The only reason he's here now is that Grant has waved him over to the sideline before a national-team training session. Only a couple of questions, Badir says, and only under one condition: "I never answer questions about politics. That's how I am. That's how I've always been."

Is there a reason that you don't want to talk about what it means to be an Israeli Arab? A reason you don't want to talk about your grandfather? "No reason," Badir replies. "I don't want to answer these questions. I am a soccer player, and that's that."

Abbas Suan glances at the red light on the reporter's tape recorder. For months after his goal against Ireland, Suan refused to speak out on Arab Israeli issues, acutely aware of the weight his words carry. But now, ever so slowly, he is beginning to dip that toe. "I represent most of the Arab problems in Israel, problems of land and discrimination," he says. "For all the Israeli people I want to emphasize that we can live together, but [the Jewish majority] has to listen to our problems."

Later, the subject turns to his family's old property near Beit She'an. "We want to talk about the fact that we want our land back," Suan says. "The family has 175 acres. The cemetery is still there. Many things of our family are still there."

Suan is asked why he stands for but doesn't sing the Israeli national anthem, which hails "the Jewish spirit" and "the land of Zion." He smiles, looks skyward and chooses his response with precision: "Have you seen the words?"

Why does he address these topics when Badir will not? "I belong to an Arab team [Bnei Sakhnin], and I represent the Arab sector more than Walid [who plays for Hapoel Tel Aviv]," he says. "Most of the time Walid has played on Jewish teams. You can ask him. Maybe he likes to be in the shadows?"

Rifaat (Jimmy) Tourk knows the pressure well. He was Israel's Jackie Robinson, the first Arab to play for the national team, appearing in 42 games between 1976 and '86. Now 50, he runs a nonprofit soccer school for 200 at-risk kids in his native Jaffa, where he serves on the city council. "The truth is I feel wonderful whenever Israel does well, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel all the more happy considering the two players who scored such important goals were Arabs," Tourk says. "They represent us, after all, and there's no doubt their success strengthens us and improves relations between Arabs and Jews."

No Israeli Arab player has endured more racism than Tourk did during his 15-year career with Hapoel Tel Aviv. "I don't remember a single game when nobody spat at me--and I'm not just talking about the crowds, I'm talking about the players on other teams," he says. "They would try to break my legs because of who I am, because of what I am. There would always be two or three players cursing me, telling me, 'Go to Arafat! Go back to Syria! You're a terrorist!' I'd come to stadiums, and there was an enormous choir singing, 'Death to Arabs!' It was very difficult to overcome all this, but I succeeded, and I should add that my coaches and teammates helped me pull through all of it."

Tourk is hardly a radical. He rarely spoke out as a player, says most of his close friends are Jews and adds that 90% of the contributions to his soccer school come from Jewish sources. Yet he still can't abide Badir's no-politics policy. "Abbas speaks more about the Arab situation, and I like his attitude much better," Tourk says. "He doesn't throw stones, he doesn't do anything violent, but you have to say what you have to say. There's an army in the West Bank and an occupation, but Walid says, 'Leave me alone; I don't talk politics.' That's cowardly. I say outright that the occupation is destructive and corrupts us."

Ask other Israeli Arab public figures, though, and there's no consensus on Badir's silence. Playing for Hapoel Tel Aviv, some point out, he may not want to offend his (mostly Jewish) fans or his (mostly Jewish) neighbors. Besides, others ask, why should he be forced into a role that he clearly doesn't want? "Even if Walid says nothing, for us the fact that his name is mentioned on TV and that he's putting the Arab community on the map is enough," says Jafar Farah, who heads the Mossawa Center, an Israeli Arab civil rights group. "He doesn't need to say anything else. It would be better if he would, but not every Arab should be a politician or a human-rights activist."

If Israel makes the World Cup, Bahloul says, the Arab sector will have to look to Suan if it wants an athlete to speak out. Don't expect a Mexico City moment, but don't expect "no comment" either. "Walid Badir lost his grandfather at Kafr-Kassem, but you never hear him speak about this tragedy," Bahloul says. "The Arab people don't like that. This was a massacre. But when Abbas Suan speaks you can feel the conflict inside him. You realize that with his charisma he can be the voice of the pain of the Arab people."

Sometimes all the debates, all the symbols, all the layers of meaning are enough to give you vertigo. Sometimes you have to make things simple, pull up a chair to a national-team scrimmage, close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the game--and the sounds of the names.





The names may be Arab and Jewish, but for one glorious instant the players are not Arabs or Jews. They're just 22 men on a training field, 22 soccer dreamers wearing the same blue uniform, and above all, on the eve of perhaps their finest hour, 22 Israelis.

Like the nation it represents, Israeli soccer has already overcome a labyrinth of obstacles in its brief history. Because most Arab states refuse to take the same field as Israel, the team had to hopscotch among a Risk board of regions--Asia, Europe and even Oceania--before finally joining Europe in 1992. From 2002 to '04 the national team had to play its home games abroad after soccer's governing bodies declared Israel a "security risk." And, of course, across the world there has been chronic racism directed toward Israel's players, Jews and Arabs alike.

Compared to those challenges, a match at Switzerland is nothing. For a team that has achieved the unthinkable--going toe-to-toe with Europe's soccer elite, rallying Israel's once-jaded fans, uniting Arabs and Jews--how hard could it be for these men to prevail in one 90-minute game?

Then again, you can't help but wonder, maybe they've already won.

If there can be a team known as Manchester United, Suan asks, why not a team that is deserving of the nickname Israel United?

"My biggest dream is to go to the World Cup," says Suan. "After that, I don't know if there will be anything left to dream about."

What would you do if you were Walid Badir? Would you dip your toe into the pool of protest? Would you tell your family's tragic story?


Photographs by Ziv Koren/Polaris


Despite his heroics on the field, Suan (center) has been disparaged by both Jewish and Islamic extremists.


Photographs by Ziv Koren/Polaris


Suan (left) and Badir have not only thrust Israel into the World Cup picture but also helped alter Israeli Jews' attitudes toward their Arab countrymen.


Photographs by Ziv Koren/Polaris


Billboards featuring Suan are almost as prominent as the minaret that rises above Sakhnin.




 Suan's dramatic goal against Ireland gave Israel a tie and kept alive its hopes of qualifying for the Cup.




Arik Benado (center) was one of many teammates who embraced Suan after his equalizer.


Photographs by Ziv Koren/Polaris


At home in Sakhnin, Abbas Suan (top, right corner, and above, right) prays at the mosque and has tea with his father, Said.


Photographs by Ziv Koren/Polaris


Unlike Badir, Suan (with wife Safaa and daughter Mabsam) speaks out about his family's grievances and the slights suffered by Israeli Arabs.