Arab football star may join Israel's most racist club

In one of the more counter-intuitive transfer bids in recent football, Betar is trying to lure the international player Abbas Suan from Bnei Sakhnin, the club he captains, based in an Israeli Arab town in the Galilee. Last year, Sakhnin became the first Arab club in Israel's history to win its equivalent of the FA cup.

If the move is successful, Suan would be going to a club whose fans jeered and abused him only days after he had spectacularly kept alive Israel's World Cup qualifying bid this year with a goal against Ireland. Unfortunately, the bid ultimately failed.

In sharp contrast to Betar Jerusalem, Sakhnin has Arab and Jewish players in its squad. The club, warmly congratulated for its cup success by the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Suan as its most famous player, have become something of a symbol of reconciliation, including Jews in the Galilee as well as Arabs among its fans.

The home crowd at Jerusalem's Malha stadium greeted Suan, playing a few days later in Sakhnin's game against Betar, which has a long-standing association with the Likud party, with a banner proclaiming, "Suan: You don't represent us". Betar fans have long been known for other slogans chanted at Arab players such as, "No Arabs, No terror".

But after the conspicuous role played by Suan and another Arab goal-scorer, Walid Badil, during Israel's World Cup progress, the Sakhnin fans turned the table on their Jerusalem opponents in the same game with their own chant of, "No Arabs; No World Cup".

Betar recently recruited the top French manager Luis Fernandez. But Arkadi Gaidamak, Betar's Russian owner , was reportedly dismayed by the widespread coverage in the French media of Betar's racist reputation after Mr Fernandez was appointed. so Mr Gaidamak approached the Sakhnin chairman Mazen Ghnaim about the possible release of Suan after donating $500,000 (£290,000) to Sakhnin's youth club.

But at a Betar training session yesterday 150 fans demonstrated against the plan. One, Roy Rachamen, told the Ynet news service: "I don't care if I have to sit 40 years in jail. There is no way Gaidamak will bring Arab players to Betar."

Suan is quoted in the daily Haaretz as saying: "I am under contract at Sakhnin and any step I will take will only be with the authorisation of Ghnaim. If a transfer to Betar Jerusalem can help Bnei Sakhnin, I am willing to become the first Arab player at Betar."

The idea of an Arab Betar Jerusalem player is a revolutionary precedent which will challenge its fans to the limit, if it is realised. Police have regularly been out in force to prevent the Betar crowd causing trouble during games with Sakhnin.

Sakhnin's cup success last year, which caused rejoicing throughout the Israeli Arab population, overcame the club's poverty, the rickety stands and bumpy pitch, although Qatar has donated $6m for a new stadium. Qatar, which like other Gulf states has no formal diplomatic relations with Israel, has frequently made donations to causes in the occupied Palestinian territories, but this is the first investment it has made in Israel. Indeed, several Arab states had refused to help Sakhnin because the town is in Israel and its team plays in the national league.

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