International Herald Tribune – 15 June 2006
Like bars around the globe, Sammy’s café is buzzing with a typical mixture of the overheated passions and home-grown wisdom unleashed every four years with the arrival of the soccer World Cup. Suddenly everyone watching on the giant open-air screen in Sammy’s courtyard is an expert on Paraguay’s top goal scorer or the previous form of Costa Rica’s left-back.
No one in Nazareth, the effective capital of Israel’s more than one million Arab citizens, has been this engrossed in football since the surprise victory two years ago of a neighboring Arab town, Sakhnin, in the Israeli Cup. Sakhnin’s practice ground was a clearing in an olive grove.
At the best of times, Nazarenes admit to an identity crisis: they are citizens of Israel, the Jewish state, while belonging, historically at least, to the Palestinian people. But on this occasion the fraught question of where their true loyalties lie can safely be set aside: There is no Israeli or Palestinian team up for the Cup.
Given the heavy subscription fees demanded here to watch the matches on TV, the failure of the Israeli side to qualify has dented viewing figures among Israeli Jews. But according to the Hebrew media, Israel’s Arab citizens are subscribing in large numbers. That interest is reflected in the explosion of flags draped from nearly every balcony in Nazareth.
Israel’s Jewish citizens don’t need the excuse of an international sporting event to show their patriotism. All year round, the blue and white Star of David hangs from grand municipal offices, humble private homes and car windows.
Nazarenes have traditionally been far more reluctant to display their allegiances. “Most homes don’t want to fly the Israeli flag because we cannot connect to its Jewish symbolism,” concedes Tariq Shihadi, director of the city’s tourism office. “It’s problematic with the authorities to fly the Palestinian flag, too, so we simply avoid the issue.”
But suddenly Nazareth homes are ablaze with flags, and corner shops look more like neglected outposts of the United Nations. The Israeli and Palestinian flags are nowhere in sight. Instead the Nazareth consensus has settled on a glaring profusion of green and yellow. Every man, woman and child seems to be backing Brazil. Why the passionate enthusiasm for a team on the other side of the world?
“It’s not about politics,” observes Yaman Roq, a regular at Sammy’s football nights. “If it were, we’d probably all be backing Italy. None of us have forgotten that in 1982 the Italians dedicated their World Cup victory to the Palestine Liberation Organization.”
Yosef Daniel’s explanation is doubtless shared by many Brazil fans found around the world. “We love the Brazilians because they represent the spirit of the third world. Their team has struggled to make itself the best in the world. That and the fact that they play beautiful, inspirational football.”
Butheina Awad, 26, a teacher, one of the few women watching at Sammy’s, offers an additional insight. “No one else will probably admit it, but I suspect that it’s also because as Palestinians we have always been on the receiving end of defeats, whether from the Turks, the British or the Israelis. Brazil gives us the small hope that for once we can be with the winning side.”