Editor’s note: Our regular book reviewer Alex Usher delves into football in Israel with Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler’s Goals for Galilee: The Triumphs and Traumas of the Sons of Sakhnin, Israel’s Arab Football Club and Tamir Sorek’s Arab Soccer in a Jewish State.
One of the classic narratives in football – indeed, in sports generally – is that of the club or team representing a hard-scrabble community or dispossessed minority overcoming the odds to win the league or cup/defeat the symbol of oppression/etc. So when Bnei Sakhnin, (“The Sons of Sakhnin”), a team from a poor Arab town in Israel which was the scene of fierce battles over land confiscation in the 1950s, won Israel’s State Cup in 2004 and thus the right to represent Israel abroad in the UEFA cup the following year, you just knew the movie and book deals were in the works. The potential for mythology made it inevitable.
Jerrod Kessel and Pierre Klochendler in fact did both the movie and the book: Goals for Galilee is simply the manuscript form of their documentary of the same name. Using the classic “follow a team for a season” format, the authors use the rhythm of a season to show the highs and lows of both the squad and its fans in the season following their State Cup triumph, when the club was both fighting to maintain its Premier League status and compete abroad in Europe. This narrative style has its pluses and minuses; on the one hand, it’s a tried and trusted format, with easy-to-follow conventions making life simpler for writers and readers alike. On the other hand, it means that the result is inevitably going to be compared to top works in the genre like Joe McGinnis’ The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro or perhaps Tim Parks’ A Season With Verona.
To answer the big question early: this ain’t no Castel Di Sangro. The authors lack a feel for writing about the football itself (though the way they handle the passion of the fans through a game is quite excellent). More importantly, their more-than-slightly idiosyncratic writing style – in what appears to be homage to the late Jose Saramago, the authors often eschew quotation marks, and encompass multiple speakers’ points of view and speaking styles in a single paragraph – is often a distraction. Fortunately for the authors, however, the subject matter is sufficiently engrossing that these problems are ultimately forgivable.
At a superficial level, the Bnei Sakhnin story is that of underdog Arabs finally winning a predominantly Jewish league; though Arabs account for roughly a fifth of the Israel’s population (and over a third of all teams in the six divisions sanctioned by the Israeli Football Association), a team from an Arab town had never before won the Cup. But although Sakhnin is an Arab town, the Bnei Sakhnin squad contains both Arabs and Jews (as well as a smattering of Europeans and Africans). And though their chairman, Mazen Ghanaim, is an Arab skilled at playing a conciliatory role with Jewish Israelis, it is their fiery Jewish manager, Eyal Lachman, who demands that the team play in uncompromising physical style to show that Jewish teams cannot push Arabs around.
Confused yet? That’s the point. Kessel and Klochendler’s big “angle” is paradox and ambiguity. For instance, when Sakhnin play abroad in the UEFA Cup (they managed to knock out FC Tirana before succumbing to Newcastle – this being back in the days when the latter still had European ambitions), they are in the competition representing Israel – does that mean they should wave the Israeli flag? Some think yes, but then again they are also a symbol of Arab pride – so maybe their supporters should wave a Palestinian flag? No, that might be disrespectful to Israel, and Bnei Sakhnin is above all an attempt by Arabs to gain entrée into Israeli society.
Nowhere is this desire for entrée seen as fiercely as in the story of Abbas Suan, Bnei Sakhnin’s captain and all-action midfielder. Called up to the national team during the qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup, Abbas scored a blinding, vital goal against Ireland as a late-game substitute. Suddenly the Arab was feted as a savior of Israel. For those looking for symbols of national reconciliation after the second intifada, Abbas fit the bill perfectly.
In the hands of some authors, this kind of material would end up being grist for some kind of schmaltzy “football can bring world peace” story. But thankfully, Kessel and Klochendler are smarter than that – football works better as a metaphor or a mirror than as a fairy tale. Within a week of being crowned the King of Israel, Abbas was being abused in a game against Betar Jerusalem, (a fantastically dislikable club which refuses to sign Arab players) whose fans unfurled a large banner proclaiming “you don’t represent us”.
By the end of the season, Sakhnin are struggling. The Jewish refs and FA seem to have it in for a team which is seen as too obviously physical (there’s a racist subtext here about “Arabs fighting dirty” even though as often as not it’s the Jewish players being penalized). The iconic coach who forged them into such a fighting unit in the first place is let go after a run of bad results. Far from remaining a hero, Abbas is by the end of the season a figure of hate among the Sakhnin faithful as he is powerless to stop the team’s lurch towards relegation.
In other words, despite Bnei Sakhnin’s potential fairy tale status, when it comes to a relegation battle their travails look pretty familiar to fans everywhere. Each team facing relegation is unhappy in exactly the same way, as it were. But having hoisted their colours to the idea that Sakhnin represents some kind of unique paradox/ambiguity trope, the authors are forced to try to wring some nobility and meaning out of the whole affair and only partially succeed in doing so.
One of the reasons their effort doesn’t quite work is that the ambiguities faced by Sakhnin aren’t quite as unique as Kessel and Klochendler make out. In fact, the paradoxes that so delight those two authors are actually shot straight through all of Arab football in Israel – a point made most elegantly by Tamir Sorek in his book Arab Soccer in a Jewish State.
Sorek begins by forcefully making the point that the most important thing to understand with respect to Arab soccer in Israel is that it is definitively not used as a form of or symbol of resistance. Forget the example of clubs like FC Barcelona, and the idea that ethnic minorities always use local football clubs as a way of showing not just ethnic pride but of resistance to the majority as well. That’s definitively not the case in Israel. Instead, in Sorek’s phrase, football in Israel is an “integrative enclave” – a space which permits integration and equal exchange between Jews and Arabs even though the society which surrounds does not. The “integrative” part of this phrase is the one which creates possibilities and hints of alternative paths of co-existence within Israel which so enthralls Kessel and Klochendler. Sorek, however, underlines the bit about it being an “enclave”, implying delicately but forcefully that these hints and possibilities aren’t going to materially affect wider Arab-Jewish relations anytime soon.
As Sorek recounts in his opening chapter, the State of Israel did not permit Arabs to have their own football clubs during the first twenty years of the state’s existence, as it was thought likely that these clubs would become political rallying points. Instead, state and quasi-state elements such as the national trade union Histadrut would set up clubs under the Hapoel name in Arab regions, which rapidly gained in popularity. But by the sixties, Arabs were setting up their own clubs, and by the seventies their nascent municipal governments were beginning to fund these clubs as well. Gradually, the number of Arab clubs in the Israeli soccer league began to grow substantially. By 2000, roughly 35% of all teams in the six-division league were Arab (though the top division was overwhelmingly Jewish).
But of course, signifying teams as “Arab” and “Jewish” is merely a way of identifying their ownership or the ethnicity of the town they are from; with the exception of a few blatantly racist clubs such as Betar Jerusalem virtually every squad from the fifth division up contains both Arabs and Jews. For individual Arabs such as Abbas Suan, success in Israeli soccer is a means of pursuing individual success in an economic space where Arabs can compete on an equal footing with Jewish Israelis. And, of course, there are a number of predominantly Jewish teams (most notably Maccabi Haifa) that have a significant following of Arab fans because their image, or the image of the city they represent, is one of tolerance and understanding. In other words, Arabs can find ways to identify with Israeli symbols, provided these symbols themselves do not align themselves with exclusively Jewish notions of Israel.
At Arab-owned or managed clubs, the dynamic is a bit different, but no less intriguing. The Arab sports press certainly likes to make the most of Arab-jewish confrontations on the pitch, using martial metaphors and calls to Arab solidarity when a major Arab teams confronts a team like Beitar Jerusalem. But this isn’t necessarily the attitude of the fans in the stands; not only do fans conform to national norms by singing in Hebrew (even at games when two Arab teams are playing), but they also look at arab-jewish matches as an opportunity to demonstrate the possibilities of peaceful and equal co-existence. The Jewish sports press plays the same game, using these themes to highlight what they believe to be Israel’s essentially tolerant nature. But it’s a tricky area: when Arabs are selected for the national team and wear the religious symbols like the Star of David which has been adapted for national purposes, how does it play? Jews are forced to accept that the democratic nature of their state requires that non-Jews be allowed to represent them; Arabs (for the most part) feel pride that they have forced Jewish Israelis to see them as equals in this sphere of public life. Intriguingly, this has a spill-over into politics as well – among Arabs, Sorek shows that football fans are statistically more likely to vote in Israeli elections and vote for Zionist parties than non-football fans.
Not all Arabs, however, believe that football should act as an integrative activity. In fact, as Sorek describes in one excellent chapter, the Islamists among them have gone in entirely the other direction and set up their own independent leagues. Far from being an integrative initiative, the Islamic League is deliberately segregationist in intent (the point is to create an “Islamic soccer space” based on discipline, fair play, and piety), though given football’s universal appeal it is also an instrument of proselytization.
Sorek’s excellence is most in evidence during his recap of Israeli Arab soccer history, which he uses as a prelude to his examination of sports as a manifestation of modernity and the different ways in which Jews and Arabs reacted to it. Also to be applauded is the care he takes in not generalizing about Arab reactions to football. Fans, players, municipal officials and the press all have different “takes” and interests on the sport, and he is meticulous in distinguishing between them.
If there are weaknesses with the book, they stem from it not having fully erased its origins as a PhD thesis. There are a few too many references to Gramsci, Durkheim and the like. Some of the quantitative analysis is so-so and poorly integrated into the narrative (they are the kind of thing graduate studies advisors require in a thesis to demonstrate mastery of statistical regression). And the chapter on municipal support of Arab teams is a bit mediocre, relying too much on a small sample of interviews and adding little to the overall narrative.
As a converted PhD thesis, Arab Soccer in a Jewish State isn’t going to appeal to a general readership. It’s refreshingly light on the jargon, but all the same it’s not going to win anyone over on lively prose, either. There’s none of the “thrill of the match” writing here – it is serious and dispassionate inquiry into the sociology of sport of a highly politicized minority group. Readers in search of a lighter and more engaged look at the subject will certainly prefer Goals for Galilee; despite its faults, it is certainly the more accessible of the two and provides a nice entrée both to Israeli football and Arab-Jewish relations in Israel. But for serious scholars of the game, Sorek’s book is a must.