In the hills above Jerusalem, the beautiful game is making history of an ugly divide

Football's singular capacity to unite is perfectly illustrated in the village of Abu-Gosh, writes James Lawton from Israel

The village scene in Abu-Gosh in the hills of Jerusalem is warm and clamorous and touched with a little chaos. It is also rather noisy. "But then you are in Israel, what do you expect?" asks Ollie Mishcon, grandson of the great Jewish jurist Lord Mishcon and a helper in the Kick Racism Out of Israel Football campaign.

He adds: "There is a lot of passion and a lot of old pain around here, but I think anyone looking around this football pitch this morning would have to say there is also a lot of hope." Hope for what exactly as the nation braces itself for tonight's European Championship qualifying game with England in Tel Aviv? It has been written for four years now in the constitution of the fourth division club which has grown out of a unique merger between Hapoel Abu-Gosh, an exclusively Arab club drawn from an all-Arab village, and the Jewish Mevasseret United from the other side of a rocky and, not so long ago, insurmountable hill.

Results on the field have sometimes been less than spellbinding but how many divisional trophies would you need to accumulate, in this of all lands, to match the achievement captured in the fact that, in the great throng welcoming celebrity footballer John Barnes, two team-mates in their red and black strip casually link arms.

One is Alab Awwade, an Arab trainee accountant and defender. The other is Oz, a Jewish farmer and more extrovert character who proudly announces that he is the team's playmaker. They have been team-mates for four years now and they insist that their friendship has grown naturally.

Says Alab: "When I was a young boy this situation would have been unthinkable, but now it is something that you can feel is growing because what do young people really want to do? They want to enjoy their lives, they want to bring up families ... they do not want to teach their children to hate." Alab says it with some feeling because he was married recently - Oz, in another breach of local precedent, was an honoured guest - and he is expecting his first child in a few months' time.

"If he is a boy, I'm sure he will want to play football, and if he does he will be lucky to be living around here because the way it is going no one is going to ask if he is Jewish or Arab, just whether he can play." Oz agrees that friendship within the dressing room has developed steadily despite all obstacles. One of them was last year's war with the Lebanese militia Hizbollah. "There was a little tension in the dressing room but it was because of the situation not our own relationships. We stayed friends while acknowledging there was a big problem."

Another complication is explained by club director Dr Alon Liel. He says that pleasing everyone in the matter of squad selection is a challenge filled with hazards that can become so complicated they sometimes make his day job seem like the last word in breezy decision-making. The other job? Director of the office of Israel's Foreign Affairs Ministry.

His point is confirmed by a small but vociferous group of protesters pinned behind a high fence at one end of the little ground. "They don't want a non-racial team," cried the loudest of the protesters. "They want money from Europe."

Dr Liel shrugs with the implication that everyone knows that unanimity in Israel is the ultimate and almost certainly unattainable dream. "One of the complications," he says, "is that every Arab community has about 15 clans. Naturally, they all think they have the star player - and when he isn't selected, naturally there is protest.

"But if it is complicated, it is also wonderful to think that some real progress is being made." Yes, he agrees, just 10 miles or so from the Teddy Kollek stadium - where the right-wing supporters of Beitar Jerusalem regularly abuse Arab players and insist, "No Arabs - no terrorists" - there might just be the prototype of a new Israel football, an inkling even, of a new Israel.

No one on this bright, sunshiny day is in the mood for a profound discussion on the weight of history which first has to be removed from the shoulders of such as Alab and Oz; if the problems are self-evident, then so, surely, are some of the possibilities expressed in the tumult on a football pitch crowded by higgledy-piggledy houses and overlooked by a hill crowned by an old fort.

"We are not bringing you to Wembley," Dr Liel said to Barnes, a tireless campaigner against racism in football and wherever else he finds it, but what the former Liverpool and England star finds is plainly to his liking. He takes a couple of penalties and is besieged by a crowd that might be the human quilt work of Middle East history: Jews, Israeli-Arabs, non-Israeli Arabs ... all are united now in their keenness to press and hug the Barnes flesh.

Barnes says that he is moved as he always is on such occasions. "You never tire of feeling the power of football ... it is the same everywhere I go. I went to Rwanda and played football with Hutu and Tutsi kids and when you are in that context it is almost impossible to believe that their parents were so willing to slaughter each other.

"It was the same in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's stupid to imagine that football can cure all the world's problems, but it can be a terrific force for good. When you think of all the problems in the Middle East, how could anyone not be moved by a morning like this? When you see young people enjoying themselves in each other's company and not asking what religion they are or what are their politics you get angry all over again with politicians and governments.

"You have to ask again: when are governments going to learn from the power of football, and use it advantageously for everyone rather than just exploiting it for their own ends?"

Tonight Sir Bobby Charlton will be the guest of the Israeli government and no doubt he will make a similar point in his own self-effacing way.

In Abu-Gosh and Mevasseret yesterday the message had taken on a life and a substance of its own. Jack Jacobs, a London property developer who moved to enlist the help of the Football Association's anti-racist team for Israel, said: "The FA probably made some mistakes in getting involved in all the [former England manager] Sven [Goran Eriksson] sleaze, but you have to praise the work in this area. I feel quite emotional now when I look around and see how much has been accomplished so quickly in this place. If you like, we have a microcosm of what everyday life, and sport, should be about."

Certainly there are echoes in these Jerusalem hills of the days whenever a Brazilian football team present themselves to a foreign audience in some little town in Spain or Japan or Germany during a World Cup. In such hands the language of sport is rich and compelling, and so it was in Abu-Gosh yesterday.

Two Arab players will almost certainly perform for Israel tonight and if it should be that they make some impact, steer their team a little closer to European qualifying at the expense of England, only the most zealous of the right-wingers will be restrained in their cheers.

But then such breakthroughs have occurred before, not least two years ago when Abbas Suan, an Arab hero of the Israel Cup winners, The Sons of Sakhnin, drilled in a superb goal against Ireland that held out the promise of a place in last summer's World Cup finals in Germany. Then, for a little while it mattered much less that Suan was Arab than that he might just lead Israel to the pinnacle of football.

The project in Abu-Gosh is unlarded by such vaulting ambition. It is anchored in the belief that young Arabs and Jews have as much to unite as split them, and so far the theory holds. Last year it was besieged by the rockets of Hizbollah and Israel's fierce, and some would say, indiscriminate response, but it was no cause for Alab to withdraw his wedding invitation to Oz or for a rebellious clan finally to sabotage the long-term dream that one day there will be celebrations on both sides of the hill for the team drawn from villages who for so long might have been operating on separate planets.

"We may never win too many trophies," says Alab, "but that doesn't make us any less proud of our team and what we are achieving. There is no point in playing football if you don't want to win but sometimes you can step back and say that there are other rewards. For the Abu-Gosh team we can make other claims. We can say that we are making our own lives better and maybe the future of the child that is coming to me."

Tonight in Tel Aviv we have a football match in which the reputations of men like coach Steve McClaren and superstars Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney will once again be on the line. For a little while the result will be deemed of huge importance. Yet football and life will continue to roll along. Now, you have to hope, it will it do so nowhere more profitably in human terms than in the hill village of Abu-Gosh.

Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents The ad shows Prince Charles attired for his coronation in a crown and fur mantle with his mouth covered by a criss-cross of white duct tape
Sport
Mourinho lost his temper as well as the match
sportLiverpool handed title boost as Sunderland smash manager’s 77-game home league run
Voices
Sweet tweet: Victoria Beckham’s selfie, taken on her 40th birthday on Thursday
voices... and her career-long attack on the absurd criteria by which we define our 'betters', by Ellen E Jones
Sport
Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain (front) drives ahead of Red Bull Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia during the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at the Shanghai International circuit
sport Hamilton captured his third straight Formula One race with ease on Sunday, leading from start to finish to win the Chinese Grand Prix

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Voices
Clock off: France has had a 35‑hour working week since 1999
voicesThere's no truth to a law banning work emails after 6pm, but that didn’t stop media hysteria
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Life & Style
Lana Del Rey, Alexa Chung and Cara Delevingne each carry their signature bag
fashionMulberry's decision to go for the super-rich backfired dramatically
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit