It would be the understatement of the year to say that Ali Khatib was unknown to
even the most avid Israeli soccer fan just one month ago.
That is hardly
surprising when you consider that after coming through the Hapoel Haifa youth
system, the 22-year-old Shfar’am native was left to pursue his soccer dreams in
the doldrums of the local game, ending up at third division Ironi
Shlomi/Nahariya in 2008.
Khatib’s career was once more up in the air in
the summer of 2009 following Shlomi/Nahariya’s automatic relegation to the fifth
and last division in June of that year due to a match-fixing
With few options in Israel, Khatib eventually made a decision
which changed his life forever and has seen him go from complete anonymity to
Khatib accepted an offer from east Jerusalem
club Jabal Al Mukaber, which plays in the 10-team West Bank Premier League run
by the Palestinian Football Association.
He was one of a growing number
of Arab-Israeli players seeking their fortunes in the West Bank, and as one of
the stars of his team, which won the championship in 2010, he was also among its
top earners, making in the region of NIS 15,000 a month.
He even went on
to represent the Palestinian national team, which is part of the Asian Football
Confederation, scoring two goals in six appearances, while also playing in the
side’s 2014 World Cup qualification campaign.
Khatib’s performances for
the Palestinians went completely unnoticed in Israel, but he eventually got his
chance courtesy of an old friend.
With little budget at his disposal and
a desperate need to strengthen his squad, Hapoel Haifa coach Tal Banin asked
20-year-old midfielder Ahad Azam if he could recommend one of his former
teammates from his time in Haifa’s youth department.
Azam suggested Banin
take a look at Khatib, who also appeared for Hilal al-Quds in the West Bank
league, and after watching several clips on YouTube, the first-year head coach
called the left-footed midfielder and asked him to come in for a trial after
being told he was available.
“After 10 minutes I had seen enough,” Banin
said of the trial. “There are players everywhere, you just need to find
The problem is, Jabal Al Mukaber says it deserves a finder’s fee,
claiming that Khatib is under contract at the club and wasn’t free to move to
The Palestinian club turned to the District Court in Tel Aviv to
prevent Khatib from playing for Haifa, but it had its petition rejected on the
last day of January and vowed to complain to FIFA.
Palestinian-Israeli soccer conflict has attracted attention from around the
world, but the Israel Football Association says Jabal Mukaber has no
According to the IFA, Khatib has been registered as a player in
the Israeli leagues since the 2001/02 season and there has never been any
request made by the Palestinian association for an international release,
supervised by FIFA.
In fact, the PFA may be in hot water itself if it
allowed Khatib to play in its league without permission from the IFA, which is
what the player is claiming, saying that he joined Jabal Mukaber without a
release form, agreeing to an oral contract.
Only two things seem certain
at the moment: we haven’t heard the last of this dispute and Khatib is a far
better player than anyone had ever predicted.
Khatib has taken the league
by storm, coming off the bench to make his debut against Maccabi Netanya on
January 28 and starting in each of Haifa’s last five league matches.
has already scored four goals, playing an integral part in Haifa’s recent
revival, with the struggling team losing just once in the six matches Khatib has
been involved in, winning its past three to climb to 11th place in the
standings, three points above the relegation zone.
“I played in the
Palestinian league because I had no team in Israel,” Khatib told media two weeks
ago. “I didn’t want to play in the third division in Israel and had an offer
from the Palestinian team so I went there.
“I played in front of 20,000
fans in the Palestinian league and now I want to help Haifa stay in the
“I hope that in the future I will also be able to play for the
Israel national team.”
Considering Haifa’s recent form, there is a good
chance Khatib will be granted his first wish.
However, representing the
blue-and- white will likely be far more complicated.
Players are generally
not allowed to switch nationalities if they have made senior appearances for one
FIFA-recognized country in competitive fixtures, something Khatib has done with
the Palestinian national team.
However, he can draw some encouragement
from the case of Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Thiago Motta, who received
special permission from FIFA to represent Italy despite previously appearing for
Brazil in competitive fixtures.
First things first, however, with Khatib
still needing to build on his impressive start at Haifa before Israel coach Eli
Gutman even begins to consider getting IFA officials to see what can be
But after all that has transpired in the first month of his Premier
League career, anything seems possible for Khatib, including becoming an Israel
international.[email protected] Follow Allon on Twitter: @AllonSinai