Israeli-Palestinian team wins over Aussie football fans

"We got to a point where we’re not fighting about politics anymore but about who gets to sleep in what bed."

aussie football peace team 311 (photo credit: Seth Nafte)
aussie football peace team 311
(photo credit: Seth Nafte)
MELBOURNE – On a wintry Saturday night in Sydney’s western suburbs, less than 48 hours after a terrorist attack near Eilat sparked a fresh wave of violence at home, a combined Israeli-Palestinian team participating in the Australian rules football International Cup took out their anger on their unfortunate Chinese opponents, belting them both physically and on the scoreboard.
Wearing black armbands to signify their opposition to all types of violence, the Peace Team ended a run of three consecutive losses with a 96-7 victory over China – the equivalent of a five- or six-goal win in soccer. But more notable was their willingness to stand up for one another; when an Israeli player received a deliberate push in the back during the third quarter, several teammates rushed in to defend him, initiating a brief scuffle with their smaller Chinese opponents.
Off the field the 24 players didn’t shy away from discussing politics, although it never turned violent, head coach Kevin Nafte told The Jerusalem Post. Nonetheless concerned at the effect that events 15,000 kilometers away could have on the team, Nafte told them the day before the game against China that it would only bring them closer together.
“The guys were fantastic,” he said later. “We smashed them [China]. The guys had to get it out on the field. A lot of the guys, they were thinking about it, they were feeling it.”
Four days after the China victory, the team encountered France in Melbourne. The game was played in a carnival-like atmosphere; busloads of school children from Jewish day schools attended, as did several former footballers, including one of the all-time greats – Ron Barassi.
Barassi, 75, who won 10 premierships as a player and coach in a career spanning four decades in the Australian Football League and its predecessor the Victorian Football League, told the Post the Peace Team was a source of inspiration for everyone.
“It shows you what sort of message sport can send, particularly this one, the Peace Team. The name itself is magic,” he said, before being drowned out by cheers from the small but lively crowd.
Barassi said he identified strongly with the Peace Team because his father, Ron Sr., also a champion footballer, was killed in action in Tobruk in World War II when Ron Jr. was just a small boy.
“I feel very deeply about the need for peace. I mean, I would go to war myself if something was being done to me or to my friends or my country – we all feel like that – but at the same time the Peace Team really rings a great bell with me. And to hear some of these players from either side of the so-called fence talk, to hear these guys in their early 20s, they should be teaching the guys in their 50s and 60s, who make the decisions, that war is stupid.”
Martin Flanagan, a columnist for Melbourne broadsheet The Age, said the team had come a long way both on and off the field since its only previous appearance at the International Cup in 2008.
“This is a game that’s rough, it’s a game of hurly-burly, you never know where you’re going to get hit from, and that’s what distinguishes it from rugby. That takes a lot of getting used to, and they are definitely a harder side than the one we saw three years ago,” Flanagan said.
He added that regardless of the impact the team makes in the Middle East, “they’ve certainly had an effect on Australians, a lot of people are into it.”
This includes umbrella bodies for the Jewish and Muslim communities, who, despite the often-tense relationship between them, both hosted numerous events for the Peace Team during the tournament.
Flanagan continued, “It shouldn’t surprise us in this country that very few Israelis have sat down and talked with Palestinians, because very few Australians have ever sat down and talked with Aboriginal people.
“It’s the same thing: When people don’t sit down and talk they only know one another through the media, and if Australia is any model to go on, the loudest and most prominent voices here are people... who have never sat down and talked to an Aboriginal person. So they speak out of prejudice, and they speak out of fear, and they speak out of resentment, and that has enormous consequences. It’s all about actually having dialogue.”
Flanagan expressed amazement that the team had stuck together through the renewal of violence between Israelis and Palestinians a week earlier, saying there were a number of times during the tournament that he thought, “That’s it, it won’t get up and going again.”
“But it never actually stops,” he said. “They just keep getting it going again. They don’t fear one another, they know one another. And you’ve got to see them sing and dance together. When they sing and dance together you see what they’ve got... They sing and dance better than they play footy.”
On the field, the Peace Team eventually went down 35-29 to France after mounting a late comeback.
Immediately afterward, the players were addressed by their game-day coach, five-time premiership player Robert “Dipper” DiPierdomenico.
Dipper, who famously played out Hawthorn’s 1989 Victorian Football League grand final victory over Geelong with a punctured lung, repeated to his charges what he told them at the start of the tournament – that all they should want from people is respect.
“You’ve got my bloody respect, I know that, and you’ve got everybody’s here too,” he told them.
They clearly had the respect of their French opponents, who after celebrating victory with boisterous renditions of “Frere Jacques” and “La Marsellaise,” formed a guard of honor on the field for the Peace Team players to run through.
The final game against India ended 57-20 to the Peace Team’s advantage, placing it third in the tournament’s second division. Although the contest was over by three-quarter time, it was apparent how much the game meant to the players as they argued among themselves at the break about how to bury their opponents. By the end the mood was more positive, with the entire playing group and staff gathering in a circle to sing “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu” (“Peace will come upon us”) in three languages, before grabbing Dipper and hoisting him in the air.
Afterward, defender Tamir Goldberg said the whole experience had exceeded his expectations.
“I thought we’d come to play football, whatever, have a good time. But I feel that we became so close, you can see that on the field when everybody’s jumping and hugging,” the 24-year-old Herzliya resident said.
“We got to a point on the trip where we’re not fighting about politics anymore, [but instead] bickering about who gets to sleep in what bed, the type of thing you argue about with friends, not with an enemy.”
Teammate Saeed Barhom was the only Israeli Arab player, meaning – in the words of the teenager from Ein Rafa, west of Jerusalem – he was in the unique position of not being able to identify fully with either the Israelis or the Palestinians.
He was left with similar impressions to Goldberg’s, saying, “When we arrived here, we felt that we had to show all the people here who had heard about us that this is not just talk, that it’s real, that we’re doing it, playing together, doing everything for peace... And we proved that.”
Both players expressed hope that the group would stay together. That could become a reality, thanks in part to the decision by the Australian Football League to contribute funding to keep the Peace Team going.