For the first time in history, Kafr Qassem's soccer team is graduating to Israel's national league. The addition of another Arab team to the nation's second tier soccer league is an achievement on its own, but more importantly it speaks of a larger upgrade that's underway.
From increased representation to greater inclusion on the national team and an advancement of talent from Arab villages where no coaches used to venture, representation of the Arab sector in soccer is on the rise. A closer look reveals deep cultural aspects at play, as well.
"We're having another renaissance after years of standstill," mythological announcer and former Knesset member Zouheir Bahloul says. “Soccer is again taking a central place in Arab communities as the Arab's place in Israel's classical institutions is disappearing – socially, economically and in the business world. People are searching for joy, satisfaction and excitement in soccer, which was always something that fed the souls of the weaker and poorer classes."
Bahloul relates the growing interest in soccer to the political reality for Arabs in Israel, "Here, they can regain their lost value and, for once, they have the chance to emerge victorious against the average Jew. Here, excellence isn't dependent on your I.D. card, but on natural or hard-earned talent."
Kafr Qassem, Umm al Fahm and Ahi Nazareth may be joined in the national league by Bnei Sakhnin, but from the opposite direction. For the first time in years, there will be no Arab team in Israel's premier league. "If Sakhnin moves down it'll be a sad blow to all soccer fans," Abbas Suan, a standout player from Bnei Sakhnin, said. "There are lots of teams from our sector in the national league. I'm convinced that within a year one of them will make the climb to the premiere league."
Suan is gathering young talent in Israel's north for a program of Israel's Football Association that cultivates excellence in young players – both Jews and Arabs. "The project gives every boy a chance to prove he's worthy and helps pave their way to the highest levels," he says.
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Suan credits the change to local politics and readiness to encourage young players. "In the past, teams fell because of politics or lack of support, especially in Arab areas," he said. "Today, most of the mayors are young and love soccer – they're councils are willing to support the teams."
"This is the way to fight violence," Suan says, as he explains the positive repercussions of having Arab teams in the spotlight. "The kids are dreaming about success, about becoming athletes and soccer players – it changes the atmosphere. When the Arab sector has respectable representation and they see us on the national team, of course it gives kids hope that they can make it to the top," he said. "Through sports and education we are capable of reaching the highest levels."
Bahloul says that the premier league won't be the same without Sakhnin. "For many years, Sakhnin was the team that broke barriers and raised awareness," he said. "Next year, who's going to be talking about Beitar Jerusalem against Sakhnin? A game that's so iconic and representative of national Jewish-Arab relations and stirs up so many emotions? A team that won't allow Arab players because of an ideology that is fundamentally unsportsmanlike against [an Arab] team that has put them in their place more than once."
Back to Kafr Qassem: For those who've forgotten, they made history again this year by reaching the leagues quarter finals, where they were eventually defeated by Hapoel Hadera. The team proved that they have something to offer in the national league.
The team also has a friend in the Knesset. Esawi Freige, Meretz, was the club's chairman for five years before entering politics. Freige, who doesn't hold an official position with the club, serves as the "spiritual father" for the team he describes as, "the blood of my blood and an inseparable part of my life." As he works on advancing a plan for a new soccer stadium in Kafr Qassem, he says he's proud of what they've achieved. "Once, our children dreamt of playing for Hapoel Petah Tikva. Now we can try and beat them in a derby," he says.
"We're not building a team that plans on just staying put in the national league, that's a recipe for losses," says the team's director-general, Maamoun Amar, who has the premier league in his sights. “We will have a good, attractive team that can compete with the best and we will always aim upwards."
And as far as the classic debate of coexistence goes, that's not where Amar's focus lies: "We're an Israeli team, and I ask that we're treated as such. It doesn't matter who plays for us… we're all the same."