Will Israel Ruin a Golden Generation of Israeli-Arab Soccer Stars?

A wave of Israeli-Arab soccer players has the makings of a golden generation, but will Israel allow them to reach their potential?

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Dec 2 2014, 1:14pm

Photo by Raddad Jbara

Moanes Dabour, 22, is the face of a golden generation of Israeli-Arab soccer players. There are five Israeli-Arabs on the country's under-21 squad, and they are among its most talented players. But that's how it goes for Israeli-Arabs. You don't make the squad at all if you aren't good enough to make an impact.

Read More: The Arab-Israeli Conflict Is Playing Out on the Pitch

Dabour is more than good enough. He left Maccabi Tel Aviv, the top club in the Israeli Premier League (IPL) for Grasshopper Club Zurich of the Swiss Super League last winter. Since he arrived in Switzerland, Dabour has become one of the league's best forwards, posting 20 goals in 39 appearances for Grasshopper. He has also been named Player of the Month twice and the expectation is that he will be sold to a bigger club in the upcoming summer transfer window.

Dabour believes he has an explanation for the sudden rise of Israeli-Arab players.

"The Israeli-Arab player believes in himself and believes that he can achieve his dreams." Dabour told VICE Sports. "Young players see that [Israeli-Arabs] played at a high level and they start to believe they can do it too."

Dabour went on to explain that, in the past, Israeli-Arab players didn't get the kind of attention they are getting today.

"Before the Israeli-Arab player didn't get attention from scouting, big clubs, and media and now they look at us; they know we are the future."

Ahmed Abed, another Israeli-Arab prospect currently patrolling the midfield for IPL-leading Kiryat Shmona, argues that there was plenty of Israeli-Arab talent in the past, but that many of these players didn't have the tools or the belief that they could really succeed.

Ahmed Abed (right) after scoring a game-winning goal in extra time. Photo by Raddad Jbara

Abed himself almost quit football at age 17 after he started to believe that there was no future or money for him in the sport. Instead, Abed started going to university in Haifa and also worked as a construction worker. A year later, Abed returned to football after his family and friends nudged him back onto the pitch. His recent success lends itself to the idea of a coming surge in top-flight Israeli-Arab players.

However, not everyone agrees that we are witnessing a golden generation of talent.

"I wouldn't call this a golden generation for one reason only," says Fadi Mustafa, the editor and producer of Israel's only Arabic language football television show. "I think there could be more players playing at a high level and on the national team.

"Overall, there are a lot of Arabs who don't know how to stand up for themselves within Jewish teams and are often just satisfied to reach a big club."

Indeed, if it wasn't for racial politics in Israel, the golden generation might be larger. Even though there are more than 1.5 million Israeli-Arabs in Israel, they are not proportionally represented in sports. There is not one Israeli-Arab professional basketball player in the top tier of Israeli hoops. There are barely any Israeli-Arabs playing in Israel's handball league, and if you ask most Israeli-Arabs, they would tell you that it would be hard to find any area of society in which they are proportionally represented.

Ahmad Tibi, a prominent and outspoken Israeli-Arab parliament member, believes that it has do with social class.

"[Soccer] is the sport of the poor," Tibi said. "In Arab villages there is lack of sports facilities, sports halls, swimming pools, and other fields that need financial support. This leaves only the poor kind of sports which needs an open ground, four stones and a ball for these children to play."

Another reason why Israeli-Arabs play soccer is for respect and status among their communities. Mustafa explains that in Arab culture in Israel, respect and status are sometimes more important than money. Even so, Israeli-Arab players are underrepresented on the national side. But perhaps the most important reason why many Israeli-Arabs play football is the opportunity to gain the respect of the entire nation, and the promise of being treated as equal to Jews if they perform well on the pitch.

An Israeli-Arab journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, explained that ever since Dabour has become a star in Switzerland, the Israeli media and public have embraced him as one of their own. He explains that Israeli-Arabs don't feel like they are treated equally to Jews, and that playing football is one of the only ways that an Arab can be treated as an equal.

Zahi Armali, who is generally regarded as the greatest Israeli-Arab footballer of all-time, believes that today's Israeli-Arab soccer player has to " give 200 percent effort simply because he is Arab.

"It will be hard for Israeli-Arabs to be members of the national team, when the government is trying to pass bills like the Jewish state bill", Armali said.

The Jewish state bill, which is threatening to tear apart Israel's fragile coalition government, and which has been the subject of mass protests, would formally declare Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. The Israeli-Arab community is naturally outraged over the bill, and believes that if the bill passes (it has been approved in Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet, but not voted on in parliament) it will make Israeli-Arabs' status as second class citizens even more entrenched. Many Israeli-Arab soccer players already don't sing the national anthem before matches when they get called up to the national team.

"I don't mix politics with [soccer] and I am just happy to play [soccer]," Dabour responded uncomfortably.

Israeli-Arab players are torn on whether to sing the national anthem because they know that if they do sing it, they will be criticized by the international Arab media, and that if they don't sing it, the local Israeli press will bring forth their own criticisms. This is a solid metaphor for the struggle they face as a class of players. Dabour's talent can make him a media darling, but he will always be an Israeli-Arab media darling.

As this golden generation of Israeli-Arab players comes together, it faces the unfair, impossible task of navigating the space between soccer and politics. After all, whether Israel chooses to make these players feel at home is out of their hands. All Dabour and company can do is play.