The Trans-Samaria Highway threatens to never come to an end. The ups and downs remind me more of the sharp curves on the way to an attractive resort in the Alps than a drive into the heart of the West Bank.
No one stamped my passport at the checkpoint on Route 5, but the hills along the road, along with the freezing temperatures, have created an atmosphere much more appropriate for an overseas trip.
But it is only a drive to Ariel for a soccer game last Friday between Shimshon Bnei Taibeh, the leader of the Sharon division of the C League, the lowest of the five tiers of Israeli professional soccer, and the home team, Ironi Ariel. Bnei Taibeh is undefeated so far this season and seems to be a sure bet for promotion to the B League.
The parking lots are spread out over no less than six dirt terraces, without a single space left. The question that popped up immediately is how can a routine game in the least important soccer league arouse such interest. The answer arrived quite quickly: It was not the game, but Ariel University, which is located right next to the soccer field, was holding an open day for prospective students.
A few minutes later it turned out that among the girls climbing up the road to the School of Communications and the father urging his son loudly to choose to study business administration next year, there were also a few fans who found a little time for a soccer game.
Running around at the entrance to the field was the chairman of Ironi Ariel (Ariel Municipal Soccer Club), Shay Bernthal, dressed in tailored slacks and a vest. He immediately rejected out of hand any idea at all, even the slightest hint of one, that the arrival of Shimson Bnei Taibeh, from the Arab city in central Israel, in the capital of Samaria, had any connection whatsoever to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Bernthal pointed at the door to the locker room. On the inside hang two signs next to each other: “No entry to racism” – in both Arabic and Hebrew – and “Violence? Not on our field.”
“One of our goals is coexistence,” he declares. “From day one all the players mixed wonderfully and joined the Ariel family.”
Ironi Ariel and Bnei Taibeh are both “mixed teams.” For example, the home team has the Arab Dahar brothers playing for it, goalkeeper Yusuf and Mohammed, a midfielder. Taibeh has Jews playing for it: Moshe Amar, who played in the past in the Arab town of Tirah; Uri Kabir, a former player for Ariel; Nimrod Mahni, who stars in the beach soccer league in the summer; and Liran Almog, who for some unknown reason is called “Vrudi” (Pinky) by his friends.
Taibeh’s manager is no less than the former star forward Oren Muharer, who brought Taibeh all the way up to the A League five years ago when he was still a player, and whose dream today is to see them promoted to the B League as their coach.
“We don’t mix politics with sport,” says the chairman of the Taibeh club, Yousuf Sabith Masarwah. “Our Jewish players feel at home. We barbeque together, which contributes to bringing the group together and even have fun days at [a spa].”
The benches covered by an awning alongside the concrete steps serve as the stands. About 20 local fans have grabbed seats there, most of whom have played for Ariel in the past or come out to cheer on their friends. One of the spectators, who says he is a fan of Beitar Jerusalem of the Premier League, too, is busy explaining to his friends – who declare themselves also as fans of Maccabi Tel Aviv of the top league – the many things their team is lacking in comparison to the Premier League leader, Hapoel Be’er Sheva.
Others prefer to focus on nostalgia, remembering the days when Ariel had a following of serious fans, and the mythical game against Hasharon Netanya that drew no less than 400 fans to its single set of bleachers.
On the field are the two players known as the “pair of local aces,” a play on the first names of Asi Wasihon and Asi Shoshan, two of the standouts for Ariel. The first Asi has played in the past in the Premier League in the uniforms of Maccabi Netanya and Hapoel Kfar Saba, and even played on the Israeli national under-21 team. The second Asi, the most veteran player on the team, scored the winning goal in the historic derby game seven years ago against Beitar Ariel.
The goal for Taibeh in its red jerseys is clear: to maintain its undefeated record, 12 wins and one tie so far this season, and take another step on its way back up to the B League.
Preserving the status quo
The players from the Triangle region, an area with a concentration of Arab towns along the 1967 border, put on the pressure right from the beginning of the game, but Dahar, the Ariel goalie, is having a good day and stops a few sure goals.
The strange scene of a game between a Jewish team, mostly from the Samaria area of the West Bank, which has succeeded in keeping its net empty of any goals by the league leader from the Triangle due to the efforts of its Arab goaltender, is cut off suddenly in the middle when a man wearing street clothes and taking instructions from his cellphone walks out onto the field. It turns out that one of the water valves on the side of the field has opened and someone has to turn it off.
The game resumes, along with the pressure on the Ariel goal. But in sport, and it does not matter whether it is the majors or the lowest minor league, if you can’t score, you get scored against. And that is what happens after 36 minutes of play, when Asi Shoshan shoots a beautiful free kick diagonally from the left, it meets Vrudi’s head and he heads it in. 1-0 to Ariel at halftime.
A group of 15 more fans join the group in the visitor’s seats in the stands at halftime. They were late because they first had to finish the Friday prayers in the mosque. Two of those who actually arrived earlier, Mohammed Masarwah and Basel Jabara, are kitted out with pistachio nuts, and say they never miss a game of their team. The politics of the soccer game only dirties the purity of the sport for them.
They are much more worried by the idea that if Taibeh does move up to the B League, they will have a very hard time winning there without a serious sponsor. “A city like Taibeh, with something like 67,000 people, deserves a normal team in the top league,” says Masarwah. “If we move up, we have to get stronger. Look at Sakhnin, a much smaller city than ours and they are in the Premier League.”
Masarwah and Jabara have good memories of the days in which Hapoel Taibeh played in the A League and then moved up to the second-tier National League, along with memories of Rafik Haj Yihye, the mayor of Taibeh and the sponsor behind it back in the 1990s. Haj Yihye, who later became a Labor Party member of Knesset, died in 2000 at age 50, but has been etched into the collective memory of the city and its soccer fans since he took off his shirt during an interview on Chanel 1 at the end of a riot that broke out during his team’s game against Hapoel Ramat Gan. “If the team had played this way during Haj Yihye’s time, he would have already gone into the locker room and given it to the players,” said Masarwah.
The second half is already underway, and the players of one of the children’s teams from Ariel come into the stands. They will play on the same field against Beitar Petah Tikva as soon as this game ends. For now, they are practicing by dribbling and bouncing the balls from the other side of the fence, and some of the mothers with them are cutting out black armbands and taping them on the children’s uniforms. Their coach is in mourning, sitting shiva, after the death of his father; and Wasihon will replace him as soon as he finishes up his work on the field. The children in the yellow uniforms of Beitar Petah Tikva, almost all of whom are wearing kipot, are slowly finding themselves seats alongside the fans from Taibeh.
Despite the pressure from the visitors, Ariel manages to hold its lead well into the second half, but then Wasihon pulls a muscle and is forced off the field earlier than expected. A few minutes later another Ariel player dislocates his shoulder and is forced to join him on the bench.
“Wow, what a hole we’re in now,” says Bernthal, worried. He knows very well what he is talking about. A short time later, 70 minutes into the 90-minute game, pretty teamwork by Taibeh ends in an equalizer by substitute Islam Khatib.
Taibeh still tried to turn things around and pressed hard against Ariel’s tough defense for the last 20 minutes. Claims of a handball and a demand for a penalty kick for the visitors in the final few seconds did no good, and referee Aviel Levy said no.
The atmosphere heated up a bit, but any attempts at provocation or physical contact between the players were quickly reined in by both coaches. The final whistle meant an equal division of the points for the game: The status quo in the West Bank was preserved.