In these bleak political times,  Ori Lewis explains how football stands out as a beacon of harmony, as the promotion of Arab side Ahi Nazareth demonstrates

“I reckon this place hasn’t been the same since Jesus Christ,” uttered an irate Aussie kibbutz volunteer standing in front of me in the queue to pay for his bottle of booze at the Ben-Gurion Airport duty-free shop a while back. Whatever Jesus might have thought of that comment, neither he, nor that Aussie bloke, would have envisaged that those would indeed be prophetic words. For the first time in 2,000 years, Jesus, should he re­appear, will have his own football team to support.

Last May, Ahi Nazareth, from Jesus’s very own city, became the second Arab team ever to gain promotion to the top flight of Israeli football. While it had been anticipated for a while, the addition of Bnei Sakhnin, another team from Israel’s Arab sector, was a real bon­us and should make the coming season at least as eventful as the one just ended, when the champion­ship was decided on goal difference.

While in most walks of life relations between Jews and Arabs have cooled markedly following the latest round of violence, one of the few real exceptions has been in and between football clubs, where harmony and friendly coexistence prevail and where players from both communities work together.

Sakhnin are from a small town of the same name in the heart of the lower Galilee in northern Israel. The area was the centre of a rebellion in the 1970s when the locals, together with residents of other nearby towns and villages, held demonstrations to protest against the Israeli government’s grabbing of their land, something now marked every March by far quieter protests on Land Day.

For the team, a repeat of what happened to Hapoel Taibe cannot be ruled out. Taibe were promoted in a wave of celebrations and played in the top flight for one season in the 1996-97. But it was a pyrrhic victory and has proved to be a total disaster. The high cost of main­taining a team, combined with the lack of an adequate home stadium, saw them go into free fall and they have just been relegated from the fourth division.

As the Sakhnin supporters celebrated their promotion, their Jewish coach Momo Zafran said that he would be leaving the club. “We clearly have no chance of surviving in the Premier League next season, so I would rather go now than wait to be sacked after four or five matches next season when the situation is al­ready hopeless,” he said. Efforts to persuade Zafran to stay on were still being made, but even by late June it is was still not clear who will be taking up the reins.

As for Nazareth, coming from Israel’s biggest Arab city with a strong financial base and plenty of local support, anything is possible. They won the second div­ision title despite having been docked three points earlier in the season for financial irregularities. (Police are still investigating an alleged attempt at match-fixing which has led to the resignation of the city official responsible for sport in the area, but the club itself is expected to be cleared.)

Nazareth’s coach, Azmi Nassar, an Israeli Arab who in one of his previous roles was in charge of the Palestinian national team, exudes passion and determination. He made another bit of history himself by becoming the first Arab to coach a Premier League club. After Nazareth confirmed their place in the Premier League with a 1-0 win over nearby rivals Kafr Kana, Nassar ripped off his shirt and was literally speechless for several minutes as the match ended. He lay on the pitch and was then carried aloft, barechested, before clamb­ering onto the roof of his team’s dugout together with other players as he joined in the chanting of Nazareth’s ecstatic supporters at their home stadium.

“All the politicians talk of peace, but I have beaten them all, Sharon and Arafat, I have beaten them all,” a breathless Nassar said as he began to calm down. “Look at all the love shown here: Christians, Moslems, Druze, Jews, hugging and kissing, this is the way it should be in our country,” he proclaimed.

Jesus couldn’t agree more.

From WSC 198 August 2003. What was happening this month