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united by the beautiful game

By unknown | Jun 09, 2008 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

The pitch is scruffy, with bare patches of earth and sand. The crowd is desultory, half a dozen girls and boys, yawning in the winter sunshine of the Judean hills. The home players are having a lazy kick-about, as they wait for their opponents.

The pitch is scruffy, with bare patches of earth and sand. The crowd is desultory, half a dozen girls and boys, yawning in the winter sunshine of the Judean hills. The home players are having a lazy kick-about, as they wait for their opponents.

As football games go, this is as ordinary as it gets. And yet, the presence of a tiny Fifa film crew, for this apparently insignificant fixture, shows that something rather special is taking place.

The match scheduled today, in the Jerusalem dormitory town of Mevaseret, might be recorded by future sports historians as one of those rare moments when sport was history.

An epochal event like Jesse Owens' golds in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which alerted the world to Nazi racial theories. An event like the ping-pong diplomacy of the 1970s, table tennis tournaments now seen as the first thaw in the Chinese and American Cold War.

But how can this game rank alongside those seminal episodes? To understand, you have to know the history of the two teams involved.

The home team is Katamon Abu Ghosh Mevaseret FC - "Katamon" for short. The club was founded by one-time Israeli diplomat Alon Liel. A few years ago, Liel approached the mayor of Abu Ghosh, a small Arab-Israeli town near Jerusalem, with the idea of combining Abu Ghosh's team with a mainly Jewish team from the larger settlement of Mevaseret.

Liel's intention was to fight the anti-Arab feeling prevalent in sectors of Israeli football.

Liel says, "The hatred exists mainly in places like Jerusalem, where there has been a lot of Palestinian terrorism. The fact that the Arab population in Israel often identifies with the Palestinian cause, leads to a very low level of trust."

This racism can be decidedly nasty. Liel recalls a match between the mixed Arab-Jewish team from Sakhnin, and Betar Jerusalem, one of the leading teams in Israel.

"For 90 minutes the Betar crowd chanted horrible things. They sang, 'Ahmed, clean the toilets, Ahmed, get me coffee. Death to Arabs'."

To help fight this racism, Liel met the mayor of Abu Ghosh. The mayor agreed to Liel's innovative proposal.

Since then, the mixed-race football team has fought its way through the divisions, and now boasts a strong following. All three youth squads attached to the club combine Arab and Jewish players. The management of the club is likewise divided between Arabs and Jews.

The diversity of Katamon is written in the faces of the young players in Mevaseret today. Some of these faces are dark; they are Jews from Ethiopia who speak Amharic. And some, of course, are Muslim.

One of the players, Fawzi, aged 15, warms up for the match.

"I like playing with this team. It's difficult for Arabs and Jews to play together normally. But here, that's what we do."

Mohammad Isa is the sports director of the team. He is from Abu Ghosh.

"When kids reach their teens it is difficult to integrate them because they fall in love and marry, within their community. But if you start training them young, it is easier. I hope we teach the Arab and Jewish kids not just to train together, but to learn from each other," he says.

The work of Katamon is well known in Israeli society. Liel has harnessed the energy of his mixed-race soccer team to other causes, helping kids from Darfur, for example.

But today's match is a giant stride, beyond what Liel has tried before. As 12 noon approaches, his face twitches with anxiety. Will the opponents even show? A proper crowd has gathered by now, alerted to the unusual nature of the game.

At last, a big bus sweeps in, and the first person who alights is a woman with a white veil. She is a Druze Arab, from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. And her son is part of the first Syrian-born football team ever to play in Israel.

An editor from Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's biggest selling Hebrew tabloid, arrives. As we watch the young team step down from the bus, with their parents and grandparents, he explains why the game is so remarkable.

"The Druze team is incredibly brave. They are Syrian nationals, even though they live in the Israeli-occupied zone. Syria has been at war with Israel for decades," he says.

"Maybe one day Israel will give the Golan back to Syria. The people could be attacked by the Syrian government as Israeli spies. Yet, they have come here anyway, to play football. That shows great courage."

The Druze players look rather shy and anxious; Liel rushes forward to reassure them.

The match is part of a greater process, of slow and painful reconciliation between Syria and Israel, centred on the thorny problem of the Golan Heights.

For three years, Liel himself has been conducting secret but momentous negotiations in Switzerland, with Damascus insiders. The hope is that Israel can be persuaded to hand back the Golan Heights; in return Syria will make peace with Jerusalem and desist from supporting Hamas and Hezbollah.

Because without a conclusion to the Golan dispute, Israel can never be truly secure .

This football match is a crucial element of the normalisation of Syrian-Israeli relations.

Liel puts it bluntly: "The Syrians would never have been allowed to come here without the tacit permission of the Damascus government. I see this match as a smile from Syria."

At first there are not many smiles on the faces of the young and muscular Druze players. But as the match unfolds everyone starts to relax. The Druze team slot three goals past the weaker Israeli squad.

At half time the friends and relatives of the Druze players hand out sweetmeats and pastries from Damascus, and rosy red apples from the Golan orchards. It is a touching scene.

The second half is something of a walkover. The final result is 7-1. The Israeli team hope to do better when they play the scheduled return match, in the Golan.

But the result is relatively unimportant. What remains in the mind is the sight of these players, from so many varied, remote and sometimes hostile cultures, brought together by a simple game.


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