(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Whether you consider it a complete coincidence or blatant racism, or perhaps something in between, the facts are simple.
Until this past Friday, when Amar Salman led out Hapoel Jerusalem of the National League, never had an Israeli- Arab coach guided a professional soccer club under Jewish ownership.
Since Rifaat “Jimmy” Turk became the first Arab to play for the Israel national team in 1976, countless Israeli-Arabs have followed in his footsteps in wearing the blue-and-white.
Dozens of Arab players currently play in the Premier League in every club apart from Betar Jerusalem, and in recent years they have grown in prominence, starring for their respected teams.
That trend only seems set to gather momentum in the coming seasons, with the improvement in coaching and infrastructure in Arab towns and cities resulting in seven Israeli-Arabs currently being part of the Israel national youth team.
However, while any Arab player good enough can now be certain he’ll be given a fair chance, the Arab coaches have simply not received an adequate opportunity to prove themselves.
Even the Arab owned clubs in Israel’s two professional divisions have often overlooked their coaches.
Bnei Sakhnin, by far the most successful Arab club in Israeli soccer, has been part of the Premier League for every season apart from one since 2003/04, but despite going through eight managers in that period, it failed to give a single Arab coach an opportunity.
Turk didn’t last long as coach of Hapoel Tayibe when it became the first Arab club to play in the top flight in 1996/97, with the late Azmi Nasser also being given little credit at Maccabi Ahi Nazareth when it was part of the Premier League.
There are currently three Arab coaches working in the National League, but only Salman guides a Jewish-owned club.
Hapoel Jerusalem has long been a model club when it comes to coexistence between Jews and Muslims and it is quite fitting that it should be the first to give an Arab coach his chance.
Salman spent almost his entire career playing for Hapoel Jerusalem and was Lufa Kadosh’s assistant at the club over the past couple of seasons.
With Jerusalem in serious financial trouble, Salman was the right person, at the right time and at the right price for the Reds.
“When I signed the contract the chairman thanked me for willing to take charge of the team with all its problems and I said I’m ready for anything because this is my home and I will not give up on my home,” Salman told Riada El Hamisa, Sport5’s Arab soccer program.
“Becoming the Hapoel Jerusalem coach brings my career full circle. I’m coaching the club at which I grew up at and I couldn’t be happier.”
Salman is a native of Beit Safafa in southern Jerusalem, where he also runs a soccer school.
He encourages his youth players to join Hapoel Jerusalem due to its spirit of coexistence.
“An Arab player never feels that he is an Arab player at Hapoel Jerusalem but rather a family member,” Salman said.
While Salman is thankful for the chance he has been given, he understands that he faces an almost impossible task considering Hapoel’s current financial situation, which has resulted in 14 of the team’s players being under the age of 21.
“My goal is to play as many young players as possible and hopefully we can finish among the league’s top eight,” said Salman, whose team lost 1-0 to Maccabi Umm el-Fahm in its league opener on Friday.
“This is my first year as a coach of a senior team and I hope to continue to progress from here and go on to achieve bigger and better things.”
Only time will tell if Salman’s appointment is an aberration or a sign of things to come.
Either way, it marks an historic moment for Israeli soccer, one which deserves every praise.