Israeli Arab Soccer Team Is More Than Just a Sports Club, It’s the Face of a Community

Sakhnin’s archenemy, Beitar Jerusalem, is coming to town, but officials of the successful Arab team in the Galilee would rather talk about soccer than violence or racism.

As usual, before any meeting between Bnei Sakhnin and Beitar Jerusalem, someone wants to turn the game into an all-out war.

The police played a central role in that this time around. Up until Wednesday there were still significant disagreement between team management and law enforcement over how many officers would be assigned to Doha Stadium tomorrow. After the police said 350 police officers and private security guards would be needed, Bnei Sakhnin chairman Mohammed Abu Younes announced the game would be moved from its home stadium to the city of Acre, to reduce costs.

“It’s impossible that we should have to pay hundreds of thousands of shekels for every game,” Abu Younes said, adding, “It’s illogical and we won’t agree to it.”

He appealed to the Israel Football Association, asking them to persuade the police to ease up.

“The press heats up the atmosphere in every game between Sakhnin and Beitar,” said an IFA official. “The police get stressed and make unprecedented demands.” After intervention from the organization, a compromise reducing the number of police officer was reached that satisfied Sakhnin. But the police did not compromise regarding security for fans coming from Jerusalem, and announced that ticket sales would be held outside the city, at a location to be determined later.

Beyond its conflict with Beitar, things are looking bright for Sakhnin. The team is off to its best start ever in the Premier League, collecting 22 points in 12 matches for sole possession of third place. Head coach Marco Balbul deserves the biggest share of the credit for the success of the team, which he understands well from his previous stint there, from 2009 to 2010.

“Marco knew Sakhnin has a modest budget and can’t bring in first-rate acquisitions,” says a close associate of Balbul. “He knows how hard it is to bring good players to Sakhnin, [rather than] only those near the end of their career or hampered by injuries.”

A figure involved in managing the team says every other coach who came to Sakhnin thought first and foremost about acquisitions. “They didn’t count on local players but rather preferred to bring in mediocre players who only came because they couldn’t get a good offer elsewhere,” he says. “Besides Maor Buzaglo, Lior Asulin and Ohad Kadusi, all of whom had their own reasons and really succeeded in Sakhnin, no acquisitions really made a contribution. Marco understood that the team has good homegrown players who need the chance and especially a good word. He believed in them and went with them because he knew he would get a special commitment from them. In our league, sometimes it’s worth much more than another familiar name on the pitch.”

The right stuff

Management, like Balbul, is wary not to aim too high, but many agree that the coach’s decision to focus on Israeli-Arab players suits the team’s needs. No few than seven Israeli-Arab are in the starting 11, while 10 of them make up the backbone of the squad.

Mohammed Kalibat is the most prominent player, its leading scorer with six goals. He opted for Sakhnin’s sweetened offer over the one made by Maccabi Haifa. Firas Mugrabi, who has played on Israel’s national youth teams, also turned down offers, some of them significantly more lucrative, from other Premier League teams to play for Sakhnin. Mohammad Ghadir, who returned disappointed from his short stay in Belgium and struggled to fit back in at Maccabi Haifa, is on loan with the team and flowering under Balbul’s stewardship.

“Sakhnin’s identity as representing the Arab community is greater than in the past,” says an observer of Balbul. “You see a better connection with the fan base, which enjoys seeing a team based on players from the community and showing special dedication.”

For all its success to date, tomorrow’s match against Beitar will be a crucial test for Balbul and his players. The team’s fans, as well as management, see victory over their bitter enemy as worth much more than another three points. Team officials expect 6,000 fans to fill the stands at Doha, with another 1,000 fans coming from the capital to witness the debut of Roni Levy on the sidelines as head coach.

Levy began running practices immediately after Beitar’s match against Maccabi Tel Aviv on Sunday. He hopes to open his second term at the helm of the team on the right foot. He devoted a lot of time this week to personal conversations with the players. He also held a team meeting in which he sought to understand what they thought was stopping them from fulfilling their potential in hopes of restoring their confidence and getting the team back on track.