Newcastle prepare to enter Sakhnin's different world

Click to follow
The Independent Football

When Ernst Etchi's eyes first met the corrugated iron and bare wood of Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin's training ground, he wondered what he had done.

Etchi had arrived at the northernmost outpost of Israel from Lens, where he had played Champions' League football, to escape some vicious criticism that threatened his career. He reached the training ground along a track through an olive grove strewn with discarded televisions and smouldering rubbish piles. The main pitch lies by a farm and, as he trains, the sound of goats and cockerels can be heard drifting into the hills of Galilee. The "complex" is little more than a couple of corrugated iron sheds while the office of the manager, Eyal Lachman, is little bigger than a disabled toilet.

"Yes, I thought I had been kidnapped, I wondered what on earth I had done," Etchi said. The answer was provided on the day this collection of Arab, Christian and Jewish footballers, strengthened by some imports, won the Israeli State Cup for a town that had been taken from its largely Muslim population by the Israeli army and is still used as an ammunition dump. For the past two years, their stadium has been a pile of rubble and money promised by the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has only just been released to help fund its rebuilding.

Returning from their victory in the same Ramat Gan Stadium in Tel Aviv where they will tonight attempt to overturn a 2-0 deficit against Newcastle in the Uefa Cup, they found the road back to this spread of low concrete houses a few miles from Nazareth impassable. As the first Arab club to win an Israeli trophy, Sakhnin had sparked something profound. For 25 minutes, they walked to the house of their chairman, which acts as the unofficial club headquarters.

The bus will set off from Ma'azam Ghnaim's house this afternoon for a stadium that is a different world from their own training pitch. Some 50 other buses will follow, taking most of a town's population. The name of Ghnaim will be represented on the teamsheet; the three extended families that provide Sakhnin with many of its players and officials provides for the deepest imaginable sense of belonging, a quality Sakhnin desperately requires.

Etchi does not live in Sakhnin, whose adulation of its footballers he finds suffocating. "It is impossible for me to walk the streets," he said. "But as someone who has played in the Champions' League I feel a special responsibility."

For the club captain, Abas Suan, there will be no responsibility since his spat with Nicky Butt that saw both dismissed at St James' Park, means he will miss the return fixture. He regards the statements from Newcastle's manager, Graeme Souness, that Sakhnin were over-physical, as ludicrous.

"How else are we supposed to compete? For us to play against stars like these was a dream that lasted a whole night. Some in the Israeli press were critical of our play but to so many Arab supporters from the Section [the occupied lands] losing 2-0 at Newcastle was greeted like a victory."

Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin (probable 5-4-1): Murambadoro; B Ghnaim, Etchi, Eliyahu, Danan, Kassom; Rabah, Hamud, Masudi, Rodrigues; Agoye.

Newcastle United (probable: 4-4-2): Given; Carr, O'Brien, Hughes, Bernard; Milner, Jenas, Bowyer, Robert; Kluivert, Shearer.