Rising star causes Palestinian-Israeli soccer conflict

Khatib takes Premier League by storm after Banin brings him to Hapoel Haifa; move contested by Palestinian club.

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March 7, 2012 12:28
4 minute read.
ALI KHATIB and coach Tal Banin [file]

ALI KHATIB and coach Tal Banin 370. (photo credit: Hapoel Haifa website)

 
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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.

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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 conviction.

With few options in Israel, Khatib eventually made a decision which changed his life forever and has seen him go from complete anonymity to international headlines.

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 them.”

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 Haifa.

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.

The Palestinian-Israeli soccer conflict has attracted attention from around the world, but the Israel Football Association says Jabal Mukaber has no claim.

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.

He 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 league.

“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 done.

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.

allon@jpost.com

Follow Allon on Twitter: @AllonSinai

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