Rockets, riots and rivalry
Israeli football is fast becoming a mirror of the country itself: a battleground between Arab and Jew. James Montague talks to Abbass Swan, an Arab star of the national team, about war, religion and the rise of hooliganism
Sunday November 26, 2006
Observer Sport Monthly
Haifa is one of the few cities in Israel where Jews and Arabs are close to being integrated. The local football team, Maccabi Haifa, have long championed Israeli Arab players and Abbass Swan, their major summer signing, is the country's most prominent Arab footballer.
In 2004, he led his hometown club and Israel's most successful Arab team, Bnei Sakhnin, to the Israeli Cup and he is a regular in the national side. For many, Abbass is an example of someone proud to be both Muslim and Israeli. He was nominated as one of Time magazine's heroes of 2005.
'The Haifa fans accepted me very quickly,' Abbass told me when I visited him at his home in Sakhnin, a small town in northern Israel, about 20 miles east of Haifa, where the industrial suburbs are replaced by olive groves and flat, sand-yellow buildings. 'Some kids wrote slogans about me because I'm an Arab, but the club stamped down on that.'
Away from Haifa, Swan is prepared to encounter a vociferous hatred. 'Israeli fans are wonderful, some of the best in the world,' he says. 'At the same time, there are a few that behave shamefully.' He is thinking, in particular, of the supporters of Beitar Jerusalem.
In March 2005, Swan scored Israel's last-minute equaliser against the Republic of Ireland in a World Cup qualifier. But a week later, he played at Beitar's notorious Teddy stadium and the home fans unfurled a banner that said: 'Swan, you do not represent us.' After a game at Sakhnin, Beitar fans rioted and broke into the room where Swan was giving a TV interview. He escaped, but says that the police at the ground failed to intervene. Yet he recently considered becoming Beitar's first Arab player following an approach from the club's owner, the Russia-born tycoon Arcadi Gaydamak. He is the father of Portsmouth owner Alexandre Gaydamak. 'I said I was ready, that I could do it,' Swan says, with an odd expression of disappointment. 'I believe he was trying to break the image of Beitar and say that Arab players could play for them. But he got into trouble in Jerusalem. In the end, he apologised and said he couldn't sign me.'
Instead, Swan joined Haifa. In July, the port city was subject to Hizbollah's fierce bombardment during the war with the militia in Lebanon. A Katyusha rocket landed outside Haifa's Kiryat Eliezer stadium; the FA banned all games in northern Israel, while Uefa forced teams to play European matches abroad. Haifa had to play a 'home' Champions League qualifying match against Liverpool in Ukraine.
The domestic season eventually began on 26 August, 12 days after the ceasefire was announced and a week later than planned. On the opening day, Maccabi Haifa played Maccabi Netanya at the latter's crumbling stadium just north of Tel Aviv. On any given Saturday a game in this league would open up a host of rivalries: Israeli Jew versus Israeli Arab, the Likud party versus Labour, wealthy clubs playing those that can't afford their own ground. But on this sunny afternoon, there was a defiant atmosphere. The two sets of fans had a common enemy: Hizbollah.
Outside the stadium, wearing a green and white Maccabi Haifa top and clutching a large wooden suitcase, Oren was doing a brisk trade selling polyester scarves and tacky Star of David necklaces. Even more popular were stickers of a cartoon Haifa fan urinating on the face of Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. He translated the words on the green sticker: 'Nasrallah, you're garbage.'
'We've a chant for him today,' he said. '"Yallah, yallah, Nasrallah, I kill you, I kill you Insha'Allah".' Given the team's war-interrupted preparations, it was little surprise when Haifa lost the game 3-1. Swan, an unused substitute, never made it on to the pitch.
A day later, Beitar fans were living down to their reputation when at least 7,000 travelled to their opening match against arch-rivals Maccabi Tel Aviv. 'We hate Arabs and Muslims,' shouted 19-year-old fan Eliran, a member of Beitar's La Familia hooligan gang. 'If any Arab played for Beitar, we'd burn their ass and burn the club. They're our enemy.'
For the duration of the game the travelling contingent chanted anti-Arab songs, threw half-eaten pretzels at the referee and, later, rioted in Tel Aviv's southern suburbs to celebrate their team's 2-1 victory. Even Ossie Ardiles, briefly Beitar's manager this year and a man who knows a thing or two about prejudice as an Argentine who played in England in the aftermath of the Falklands War, has reservations about signing an Arab. 'If there was [an Arab] player good enough I'd think about bringing him here,' he told me. 'But the Teddy is a special place and I don't know if an Arab player can play with this level of animosity from our own supporters. Yes, of course, I would prefer this feeling didn't exist, but it does.'
Swan's old club, Bnei Sakhnin, will not be playing Beitar this season. They were relegated from the Israeli Premier League last year and almost went bust before Gaydamak came to the rescue with a donation of £280,000.
After our conversation, Swan took me to Bnei's Doha Stadium, so-called because it was paid for by the Qatari government. He peered dreamily across the empty stands. 'When we won the national cup [in 2004] I was so proud for the Arabs in Israel, proud that we were narrowing the gaps between communities through football,' he said. 'Now there are many symbols attached to me and many see me as an Arab symbol, nothing more. When the war broke out, everybody asked me what I thought. The truth is, a drop of blood from a Jewish or Arab child is the same. The missiles don't distinguish between Jews and Arabs.'
Jim Montague is working on a book about Middle Eastern football.