The Guardian – 16 August 2004
The match itself will be little honoured outside the sporting annals, but last Thursday night an obscure team called Bnei Sakhnin made football history in a Tel Aviv stadium by appearing in an international qualifier against the Albanian side Partizani Tirana in the Uefa Cup. They were the first Arab team ever to compete in the European competition.
But more intriguingly, as Sakhnin romped home to a 3-0 victory, they carried with them the hopes of Israel’s legions of football fans. It is the first time the Jewish state has been represented in an international football competition by an Arab club.
Sakhnin, a town of 22,000 Arabs in the country’s northern Galilee region, has the poorest squad in the premier division. It qualified for the Uefa competition after unexpectedly beating Hapoel Haifa 4-1 for the state cup in May.
Ever since, the Hebrew media has been accentuating the positive, suggesting that the Jewish state is finally proving its multicultural credentials – and its acceptance of 1 million citizens who are Palestinian. After the match reporters crowded around the team’s Jewish coach, Eyal Lachman, as he announced: “This team is making history.” Sakhnin, led by an Arab captain, includes Jewish and foreign players.
But there is a side to Sakhnin’s story which has been kept out of the headlines. A mere 2,000 spectators turned up at the national stadium. Sakhnin’s fans were loath to venture into Tel Aviv amid the mood of hostility to Arabs, and Jews appeared reluctant to wave the Star of David flag in support of an Arab team.
In fact, during the four-year intifada, Israeli football has been one of the social pressure-valves for the expression of tribal sentiments. Opposing chants of “Allahu akbar” (God is great) and “Death to the Arabs” are common at matches, particularly since Sakhnin and another Arab squad, Nazareth, qualified for the premier division last season. In June the first fan was convicted of incitement to racism, and more cases, mostly involving rightwing supporters of Jerusalem Beitar, are in the pipeline.
For historical reasons, Sakhnin’s success is resented by a far wider spectrum of Israeli opinion. In 1976, the town won notoriety when security forces quelled protests from residents opposed to a wave of land confiscations that were strippingits reserves. In the clashes, six unarmed demonstrators were shot dead by police, forever branding the town – in Jewish eyes – as a fifth column.
A cross the Arab world the deaths were seen differently: as a symbol of the David and Goliath struggle of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Each year the incident is commemorated in the Middle East as Land Day. Maybe not coincidentally, Bnei Sakhnin are reported to have recently earned a strong following in Arab states.
Today, overcrowded Sakhnin is hemmed in on all sides by luxury Jewish communities, which have been given control of the town’s lands. “Once Sakhnin was one of the most important farming communities in the region, and now we don’t have room for gardens or new homes,” said Ali Zbeidat, whose home, like many others in Sakhnin, is under threat of demolition. He says he was forced to build illegally on his family’s ancient olive groves after the local Jewish regional council, Misgav, refused him a construction permit.
Not only private citizens are suffering. The local municipality has been battling Misgav officials for several years to free up land to build a football stadium; meanwhile, the players train on a makeshift pitch. With most big business in Jewish hands, Sakhnin has also found it impossible to win sponsorship deals.
Uefa spared Israeli blushes by declaring that all matches in Israel would be played in Tel Aviv to ensure visiting teams’ safety. None the less, apparently worried by bad publicity, Ariel Sharon has stepped in to pledge $2m for a stadium. The only trouble, say Sakhnin residents, is they are not sure where he will find the room to build it.