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
Saturday 24 March 2007
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.
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