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World Cup Finals Riveting Israel

TEL AVIV — Ariel Sharon is conducting the political high-wire act of his life. Relations with Washington are tense over the planned expansion of the Ma’ale Adumim settlement near Jerusalem. Security agencies warn that Jewish extremists are planning their worst to stop the disengagement plan.

Last week, however, those dramas took a back seat to Israel’s true passion, soccer. As Israel’s national team entered a crucial round of qualifying games for the 2006 World Cup Finals in Germany, television ratings soared to record breaking, Super Bowl-style heights and normal activity all but halted.

Israel survived both games, against Ireland and France, in nail-biting 1-1 ties. In a dramatic twist, an Israeli Arab player scored the critical, game-saving point in both games. The victories have touched off contradictory waves of sentiment, pride, xenophobic grumbling and even ethnic violence. In Israel, as elsewhere, sports is not just a game but also a metaphor for life.

To most of the world outside North America, soccer was never just a sport. Nations have gone to war over disputed games. Historic victories — such as the 1998 World Cup victory by the French national team, constituting mostly African and West Indian immigrants’ sons — can symbolize and catalyze broader changes in the national psyche. Last week, Israel proved that it is no exception.

Only once in its history has Israel managed to qualify for the finals, in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. In the last 15 years it has been kept out of serious contention by an agonizing series of mishaps. Four years ago, a goal in the last minute of a crucial game against Austria stopped the Israeli team just short of the two-game semifinals. Two years earlier Israel did qualify for a berth in the European finals, only to be trounced, 5-0, by Denmark.

The defeats have given rise to much soul-searching, and not only among sports fans. Just before airing the Ireland game (which peaked at a 40% rating, by far the highest of the year), Channel 10 Television broadcast one segment from a documentary series, “In Search of the Lost Cup,” in which senior political correspondent Emanuel Rosen argues that Israel’s dismal showing is emblematic of the shortcomings in the Israeli national character. Israelis, Rosen claims, are lazy, disorganized, unwilling to work hard, unprepared and tend to fall apart under pressure. That, he argues, is why we lose.

When the documentary ended, the current team took the field in Ramat Gan Stadium, coached by much-maligned Avraham Grant — who, to his detractors, symbolizes much of what Rosen was talking about — and proved Rosen wrong, with 50,000 fans looking on. Then, three days later, the team did it again. It outplayed two powerful European opponents, both of whom regularly qualify for the finals. Both times it staged a dramatic, last-minute comeback, closing a 1-0 deficit in the final seconds. To cap it all, Israeli Arabs scored both goals. Abbas Suan equalized in the final minute against Ireland, and Walid Badir headed home the equalizer against France. If Israelis are too divided or dispirited to win, it wasn’t evident in Ramat Gan last week.

The symbolism didn’t end there. Suan’s goal came just days before Land Day, the day marked by Israeli Arabs each year in memory of six demonstrators, most them from Suan’s hometown of Sakhnin, who were shot to death by police in 1976. As for Badir, his grandfather died in the so-called Kfar Qassem massacre in 1956, when Israeli troops killed 49 villagers returning home from the fields after a curfew. His goal was scored on Land Day, whose commemoration was nearly forgotten this year amid the soccer excitement.

Both players are national sports heroes who see themselves as Israelis. Both try to avoid — at least publicly — any political ramifications of their sporting success. Both find it impossible to do.

Just weeks before the Ireland game, Israel met Croatia for a warm-up match in Jerusalem, where fans of the local team, Beitar Jerusalem, are known for their frequent chants of “Death to Arabs.” Suan, playing for Israel’s national team and wearing its colors, was booed loudly before the game. The wound didn’t heal quickly; after he scored in the final seconds against Ireland last week, Suan told reporters it was “my answer to those people in Jerusalem.”

As it happens, Suan’s team, B’nei Sakhnin — the only team from an Arab town in the Israeli premier league — is currently Israel’s reigning champion, having won the national cup last season. At the time there was much talk of the symbolism of the event. Prime Minister Sharon promised Sakhnin its own stadium, something every other premier league team has. Ten months later, no ground has been broken.

Suan and Badir became instant national heroes last week. They were mobbed by talk shows, congratulated by politicians. But less than a week later, Sakhnin hosted Beitar Jerusalem at Ramat Gan Stadium, the same field on which Suan scored his now-famous goal (Ramat Gan is about 100 miles from Sakhnin — that’s how far the team has to go to host an important game). As Beitar management presented Suan with flowers, thousands of Beitar fans booed loudly. After the game, which ended in a 0-0 draw, fights broke out. Two fans were hospitalized, and five were arrested.

The national team still retains its chances for qualification. Games will resume in June, and good results in Ireland and Switzerland are likely to bring Israel closer to its coveted goal. Even if it is finally achieved, though, the many questions regarding Jewish and Arab citizens will remain unresolved.


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