Under-21 National Soccer Team: A Rare Feat of Multiculturalism in Israel

In these times, when it seems the gap between Jews and Arabs is unbridgeable, the U-21 national team for Euro 2013 that kicks off today is an island of sanity. Guy Luzon’s squad includes six Arabs.

The senior national team that beat Honduras 2-0 in a friendly on Monday did not include any Arab players. Maharan Radi and Beram Kayal were released from the squad before the trip to New York. In contrast, the Under-21 national team for Euro 2013, which begins today, includes six Arab players: Marwan Kabha from Maccabi Petah Tikva, Ben Vehava from Kiryat Shmona, Taleb Tawatiha of Maccabi Haifa, Moanes Dabour of Maccabi Tel Aviv, Mohammed Kalibat of Bnei Sakhnin and Ahad Azam, a Bedouin who plays for Hapoel Haifa.

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It seems that of late, the question of Arab representation in the national team is attracting attention. When the U-21 team met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu several days ago, he said: “I’m glad everyone is represented in the national team: Jews, Arabs, Russians and Ethiopians.”

Last weekend the head of the Palestinian Football Federation, Jibril Rajoub, tried to pass a resolution at the FIFA congress against Israel, protesting the fact that Palestinian soccer players are not allowed to move freely between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Rajoub went as far as to send letters to all the teams playing in Euro 2013, calling on them to pull out of the tournament.

Still, the U-21 team and the Israel Football Association prefer not to focus on the relatively high number of Arab players in the squad. “We never dealt with such issues,” a source in the U-21 team said. “We really don’t care if a player is Jewish or Arab. Our job is to see to it that the best players are in the squad. Just as we have six players from the Arab population in the present squad, it could have been one, or two or eight. Players are called to the squad solely based on their skills. We don’t deal with politics or anything else.”
A source in IFA says that the Arab population includes many young talented players, but the problem is that many of them never reach the Youth Premier League and remain stuck in the lower-tier divisions. “The fact that there are so many Arab players in the current squad is an excellent thing,” he says. “The relationships between the players in the squad are wonderful. We’ve already stated so many times that soccer can be a bridge between the peoples and help to reach peace, and the present U-21 team is an excellent example of coexistence. Fans from abroad will see the Arab players in the team and realize that Israel isn’t only about wars.”

The fact that Arab Knesset members are silent as to the large number of Arab players in the squad seems strange to the IFA source: “If there wasn’t even one Arab player in the squad, MK Ahmed Tibi would raise hell in the media. He should certainly say something now about the excellent connection between Jews and Arabs in the team.”

Arab players have appeared for the senior national team, but never more than two at the same time. In past decades players such as Rifaat Turk, Zahi Armeli, Abbas Suan and Walid Badir have featured for the national team; at present, Kayal and Radi are central members of the squad.

‘The best of their generation’

Guy Luzon, the U-21 coach, believes there’s no reason to believe this will change: “All the players in the squad are talented, the best of this generation. They can all certainly make it to the senior national team. They have the talent and ability to be the next generation of our soccer,” he says

Whoever searches for friction between the Arabs and Jews in the team will be disappointed. Watching training sessions from the stands, one can’t even notice cliques. When Luzon asks the players to divide into teams, the six Arabs are never on the same team. If anything, the Arab players stick to their teammates from their clubs.

It wasn’t always like that, as one U-21 national team player told Haaretz: “In the past there was hardly any Arab representation, and it was much harder to connect. It usually takes time until a team gels. Now we’re six, and there was a time when there were even more of us in the squad, so it really doesn’t stand out now. All the players are friends and we really don’t feel the difference.”

Another current squad player adds: “I don’t know how it was in the past, but now we feel exactly as we do in our clubs. We aren’t isolated and we don’t keep to ourselves.”

Still, there might be some undercurrents. “At times some of the Arab players are embarrassed or lack confidence, so they always train in couples,” one player told Haaretz, “but that’s also true of young Jewish players who lack confidence and stick to one particular teammate.”

In order not to offend their Jewish teammates, the Arab players decided not to speak in Arabic at training sessions, or during other team activities. “Of course it’s easier for us to talk in Arabic,” one player said. “Sometimes during practice or games we want to comment or say something to each other, but we don’t want the other players to think we’re criticizing someone who made a mistake. In order not to offend anyone we speak in Hebrew, like everyone else.”

At clubs and in the senior national team, players are usually allowed to freely choose their roommates, but in the U-21 team the players are coupled together by team director Eli Rozen, and Arab and Jewish players often share the same room at training camps. “I’ve never heard anyone complain, or refuse to be someone’s roommate,” Rozen says. “The relations between all players are no less than excellent. There are no discipline problems, and the relations don’t begin or end during the game or practice session. Whoever is in the team doesn’t feel any difference between Jews and Arabs.”

Rozen adds that only during the Ramadan, when the Arab players fast and pray, he couples them together, as a matter of convenience. “The players respect each others’ holidays, and the atmosphere is very good,” he insists.

No national anthem

The Arab players do not sing the national anthem [which is perceived as being specifically for Israeli Jews] before games, and the team does not demand them to do so, while stressing that they do “identify with the team emblem and the flag.”

Naturally, the national team hopes to preserve this atmosphere, and maybe for that reason Euro 2013 will also see an attempt at building future bridges. With the help of the Peres Center for Peace, Jewish and Arab children, who play together throughout the season, will be called onto the field before every game involving the Israeli team. At present, when bridging the gaps between Jews and Arabs in Israeli society seems like a mission impossible, soccer might, again, be able to do the trick. 

Nir Keidar