Taleb Tawatha Maccabi Haifa_311.
(photo credit: Maccabi Haifa website)
Taleb Tawatha looks like anything but a trailblazer.
The scrawny 18-year-old almost seems to be out of place on the soccer field.
In the absence of injured South African international defender Peter Masilela, the shy Beduin has started in each of Maccabi Haifa’s last six Premier League matches, quickly demonstrating that his billing as one of Israeli soccer’s brightest talents was not exaggerated.
Tawatha has already caught the attention of Israel national team coach Luis Fernandez, being called up to train with the blue-and-white last week.
However, more than just his soccer acumen, it is his life story and refusal to comply with social prejudices which separate him from every other player in the Premier League.
Tawatha has lived his entire life in Jisr ez-Zarka, an Israeli Arab town neighboring Caesarea, just north of Hadera.
The town has one of the lowest average monthly wages of any locality in Israel, and to make matters even worse (perhaps even as a result), has also got one of the highest high school dropout rates in the country.
Fortunately for Tawatha, his father, Hasan, is the principal of the local school, meaning Taleb was never allowed to neglect his studies, even when he was sometimes forced to miss classes to attend Haifa training sessions.
His father’s devotion to education, as well as Haifa’s willingness to hire private tutors for its up-and-coming prospect, resulted in Taleb achieving a 91-point average in his high-school Bagrut exams.
But Tawatha’s success both on and off the field has also led him to challenge deeprooted problems most people in his position would not dare address.
To go along with all of its other troubles, Jisr ez-Zarka is also beset by racism.
Of the town’s 13,000 residents, only a few hundred are black, including Tawatha’s family, which originates from Sudan.
Tawatha has a white girlfriend, but in Jisr ez-Zarka blacks and whites only very rarely intermarry.
However, Tawatha has no intention of dropping his head in the face of bigotry – he plans to marry his longtime partner.
Tawatha has been just as impressive on the field, seamlessly slotting into the lineup of one of Israel’s top teams in place of one of its best-ever left-backs.
Masilela has played for Haifa since the 2007/08 season and has been one of the reasons for its success in recent campaigns, helping it to the league title in the 2008/09 season and to the Champions League group stage the following year.
However, he has been out with a knee injury since mid- December, and with his return not expected at least until the end of March, Tawatha has got the chance of a life-time to prove his quality.
It was actually only tragic circumstances which brought Tawatha to join the Haifa youth system as an 11-year-old.
He was planning to attend the Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer school in Kibbutz Barkai, but in May 2003 his Haifa-supporting uncle Ismail was killed in a terrorist attack in Afula, and Tawatha decided he was destined to play for the Greens.
He made his debut for Haifa last season, and with Masilela expected to
move on to Europe in the coming summer, Tawatha looks set to occupy the
left-back position at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium for many years to come.
With Israel in desperate need of a reliable defender on the left flank,
it will also surely only be a matter of time until he makes his debut
for the blue-and-white.
Despite having the odds so clearly stacked against him, Tawatha seems
poised to go on and write one of Israeli soccer’s most uplifting
stories. He has admirably tackled every obstacle life has thrown at him,
and he’s had more than his fair share to overcome.
No wonder tackling on the field comes so easy to him.