Arabs in Israel Win One for the Home Team

The two top scorers in Israeli soccer this season are Arabs, which is a source of great prestige, but they are still not about to be players on the national team.

"If I score a goal against Beitar [Jerusalem] at Teddy Stadium on Saturday, I'll be just as thrilled as when I score against any other opponent," states Achmad Saba'a, a striker for Maccabi Netanya.

So far this season, Saba'a and Maccabi Haifa's Wiyam Amashe, both Arabs, are the top-scoring players in the Premier League, with 13 goals each.

Berni Ardov

"In my day, there were only two Arabs in the top league," recalls Zahi Armeli, the only Arab ever to be named the league's top-scoring player, with 25 goals in 1988. "At that time it caused a sensation, but now that there are more than 50 Arabs in the top league, it wouldn't be much of a surprise," he says. "But make no mistake: Saba'a and Amashe's accomplishments are a source of pride not just for themselves, but for the entire Arab sector."

The league's first big-name Arab players were Armeli and Rifaat Turk in the late 1970s and the 1980s. But the Arab sector's biggest breakthrough came when Bnei Sakhnin was ranked in the Premier League in 2003, won the Israel Cup and went on to represent the country in Europe's UEFA Cup. Other sources of pride are Hapoel Tel Aviv captain Walid Badir and Sakhnin captain Abbas Suan, who played for Israel's national soccer team and scored two critical goals in World Cup qualifiers under coach Avram Grant.

"If there aren't Arabs on the field, there are no goals," boasted MK Ahmed Tibi.

Saba'a and Amashe are the most prolific Arab scorers since Armeli. Says Saba'a, 31, who reached the Premier League two-and-a-half years ago after playing for Bnei Lod: "I never even had the chance to see Armeli play; I only saw him in video clips that he himself gave me, I grew up in Majdal Krum in the Galilee, and my childhood dream was simply to play for Majdal Krum's squad."

Now Saba'a is the manager of the youth team in his hometown.

"When I was a kid, I played on fields of sand and stone," he recalls. "Now conditions are a little better, but Arab children still face inferior conditions to Jewish children, and they also might be a bit more ambitious. Then, there was no means of identifying talent. Now you see scouts watching young players even in the most remote communities. If somebody had seen me when I was a little boy, maybe I wouldn't have had to wait so long to reach the top league."

Saba'a spent more than a decade in lower-ranked leagues, playing for Majdal Krum, Acre and Lod. "I scored more than 100 goals, but I never got a shot at the Premier League," he explains. "The Lod owner, Abu Subhi, wouldn't agree to release me, no matter what the price. He said that if I were to leave, he wouldn't have a team. So I didn't get to the top league until age 29, when my contract with Lod ended. Then I signed with Maccabi Netanya."

In less than two-and-a-half years, not counting a 10-month absence due to injury, Saba'a has scored 41 goals for Netanya - almost half the team's total. He scored 13 of them this season. The squad's second-highest scorer this season is Hen Ezra, with only three goals.

"[Saba'a] scores goals at an incredible pace," said manager Reuven Atar at the end of last season. "There are several roles in soccer, but clearly the most important is scoring goals. And nobody scores better than Achmad."

Saba'a: "When I score a goal and see our fans rejoice, particularly if it's the winning goal, I feel like the happiest man in the world."

Mixed loyalties

Wiyam Amashe, age 26, is tied with Saba'a at 13 goals this season. Last season, he netted 14 goals for Kiryat Shmona. He can't even describe his feelings after scoring a goal.

"You can't speak with Wiyam about anything," says Maccabi Haifa owner Ya'akov Shahar. "It's complicated with him; it's not just about soccer."

Amashe, who is Druze, grew up in the Golan village of Buq'ata, at the foot of Mount Hermon, which belonged to Syria until 1967.

"In many senses, the village is still loyal to Syria," explains Wajdi Kish, a physical education instructor from Buq'ata and a close childhood friend of Amashe. "For that reason, Wiyam has never played with Israel's national team. It's a complicated and painful subject. Even if he were to play for the national team, and I hope he decides to do so, our village won't consider that much of an honor. I'm telling you the truth."

In Amashe's parents' living room hangs a picture of the late Syrian President Hafez Assad. "Our village is now divided between supporters of Syria's regime and those seeking a revolution," Kish explains. "But I'd say most of the village supports the ruling family."

In any event, Amashe is unofficial king of Buq'ata. "Clearly, he's the most famous person here," says Kish. "Everyone here loves soccer, and everyone supports Wiyam. Nobody here is very surprised, because Wiyam was always a prodigy."

Eli Sabti, who covers Kiryat Shmona's games for the Sports Channel, recalls seeing Amashe play at 14. "I was an assistant coach for the Kiryat Shmona boys' team, and it had an friendly training match scheduled against Buq'ata. I was the referee, and my manager was angry at me because he thought some of [Amashe's] goals should have been disallowed due to offside infractions. I told him, 'No, those weren't offsides. That boy just runs really fast.' After that game, [Amashe] started playing for Kiryat Shmona."

The other children in Buq'ata did not welcome Amashe's decision to play for Kiryat Shmona, which is half an hour away.

"At one point it wasn't really acceptable to root for any Israeli team," recalls Kish. "But Wiyam and his family didn't back down, and they kept going to Kiryat Shmona. He became a star there, and was invited to play for Israel's national youth squad."

Amashe played despite not having an Israeli identity card or passport. Like most Buq'ata residents, he still lacks these documents. Village residents who obtain these documents often are not invited to weddings or other community events.

Amashe's uncle married a Christian woman from Lebanon, which led village residents to excommunicate him - intermarriage is not accepted by the Druze community. As a result, he and his family chose to live in Kiryat Shmona.

"We are a very conservative community," Kish says, "so Wiyam is careful not to speak. He has a lot of respect for his family and his village. He's unlikely to get an Israeli identity card or passport. But he wants to play for Israel's national team. Perhaps the time has come."

Amashe is expected to be invited to play for the national team soon; in November, FIFA gave him special permission to play even though he does not hold an Israeli passport. Saba'a for his part can only dream of playing for that squad for now.

"Of course that's my goal, as it is for every soccer player," explains Netanya's top scorer, "but it's not something I can control. All I can do is to keep doing everything I can for Maccabi Netanya."

Saba'a says he is still frustrated he spent so much time in the lower-ranked leagues. "I got here at 29, but I could have started when I was much younger and maybe I would have been playing for a European team by now. I'm most frustrated that it took me so long to reach the Premier League, not that I haven't been invited to play for the national team. Although many people say they can't understand why I'm not on the national team."

For a striker, Saba'a is stocky and not particularly fast. His style is efficient, not flashy.

"I don't care what I look like on the field," he explains. "I just work very hard and do everything I can to help my team win. Nothing gets to me. I don't know whether fans are cursing me; I don't know if they're yelling at me because I'm Arab. I simply don't listen; the only thing I hear are the cheers when I score a goal."

Silent stars

During a dismal season for Maccabi Haifa, Amashe has shined as a goal-scoring star. Yet he expresses few opinions.

"All of our players speak and give interviews, and only Amashe, the best player, is silent," says a teammate. "It's strange, but apparently it's not just that he doesn't want to speak, but that the team doesn't want him to."

Maccabi Haifa's spokesman explains: "We are not a political team. When commentators write about Amashe, they get political, discussing Israeli identity versus Syrian identity. Such topics don't suit us. We are a soccer team, and Wiyam is a soccer player, and so it's better that he not talk off the field - the public discussion is never just about soccer."

Amashe's wife recently gave birth to a girl, their first child, and the young family moved to Haifa. This was the first time Amashe had moved away from Buq'ata. His wife had been studying architecture, but dropped out when the child was born. Wiyam had also started studying architecture, but didn't finish due to his soccer commitments.

"If I were not playing soccer, I would be studying medicine in Damascus," he once declared when he was younger.

He received a 95 average on his high school matriculation exams, says his childhood friend Kish. "Wiyam was not just a good student, he was perfect," Kish adds. "He is extremely intelligent, and he has many interesting things to say."

"Arab soccer players feel like they have too much to lose by opening their months, and that's regrettable," Turk once said. "And, believe me, Arab players in Israel sometimes go through hell. Perhaps it's not as bad now as it once was, but there's still discrimination and curses. But still, why shouldn't players voice their political opinions, and talk about how they feel?"

Saba'a is not silent, but he says, "The last thing that interests me right now is politics. I am first of all Arab, and then I am an Israeli soccer player. An Israeli. I don't have a problem with that. Regarding Amashe, he's in a different position than I am due to his village's sympathy for Syria. His village has to decide whether he belongs to Syria or Israel. And if it's Israel, then he can play for the national team, and, believe me, this country doesn't have players at Wiyam's level."

Amashe is unlikely to consider playing for Beitar Jerusalem, which has never signed an Arab player before and is known for its very anti-Arab fans. But Saba'a would have no problem with it.

"I'd be happy to play for Beitar if they were to make me an offer," he says, smiling. "Beitar is a major, challenging team. I wouldn't mind being the first Arab there. But I've never received an offer from them. So for the time being, I have to play against them."