The dream team

Israeli and Arab children cross social and geographic boundaries to team up on the soccer field

soccer feat 88 224 (photo credit: )
soccer feat 88 224
(photo credit: )
Under the watchful eye of soldiers in 10-meter-high sentry boxes on a hill opposite, a large group of Jewish and Arab boys rub shoulders, flanks and sometimes accidentally kick shins as they participate in an energetic afternoon school soccer practice. For the soldiers, the training sessions on the Kibbutz Barkai soccer pitch across the road from their hilltop base - and especially league games during the season - help break the monotony of long guard duty watching over the camp and surrounding area. But the budding Beckhams running around in yellow-and-blue kit only have eyes for the ball. The Jewish and Arab kids who flock to the Maccabi Tel Aviv-Barkai soccer school take no interest either in the soldiers on high, or the hundreds of droopy-eyed kibbutz cows lined up over the fence, chomping their afternoon feed. However, every now and then a collective "moo" - and not necessarily after a goal is scored - is heard above the shriek of a trainer's whistle as the four-legged spectators make their presence felt. From time to time, the Arabic-speaking muezzin of hilltop neighbors Umm-el-Kutuf calls the faithful to prayer from the sidelines, while the loudspeaker system of the army base across the road relays an occasional Hebrew announcement, ostensibly for soldiers' ears only. A fair amount of traffic passes by on the recently-widened road passing between the playing fields of Barkai and Umm-el-Kutuf, and the British-built IDF base. What was once a minor road leading through the backwaters of Wadi Ara to the Muslim village perched on two round hilltops and the small border police base of Harish a few kilometers away, has now become a major thoroughfare serving the 400-or-so families of Harish and the small community of Mitzpeh Ilan. Highway Six, also known as the Trans-Israel Highway, passes under the road that connects Barkai to Harish, which continues on over the pre-1967 "seamline," running parallel with the new security fence and patrol road leading to the Shaked block of Jewish communities and Palestinian villages in the northernmost corner of the West Bank. The community policeman for the six Jewish settlements in that area, Eliav Levi of Shaked, also sees soccer as a tool for nurturing Jewish-Arab coexistence. Involved in coaching local Jewish soccer enthusiasts, Levi has dreams of forming a local team comprising youths from the Palestinian villages dotted between the Jewish settlements and his soccer-loving settlement boys. The Herzl quote "If you will it, it is no dream" comes to mind, for just a short journey from Levi's beat, Ramle-born kibbutznik Chaim Nadler had a similar dream. Almost 10 years ago, Nadler's insatiable love of the game, strong will and powers of persuasion led to the opening of the Barkai-based soccer facility. As a lad, Nadler hitchhiked all over the country in order to support the local Maccabi soccer and basketball teams at their away games. In the 1980s he married and settled in Barkai, where he worked in the local plastics factory until recently and is still in charge of organizing the kibbutz's vehicle fleet. A decade ago, he began to pitch his idea of a soccer school for Israeli schoolboys of differing ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds who would find immediate common ground through sport. "I can't say that the members of Barkai were over the moon at the prospect of a soccer school in their front yard, but on the other hand they were supportive as obviously I couldn't do this alone," recalls Nadler, who in his youth supported Maccabi Ramle and describes himself as a "chronic Maccabi supporter." Members of the 1948-founded kibbutz branded him "soccer crazy," and were not entirely surprised when he managed to convince the Maccabim Association - the educational and community services arm of leading soccer club Maccabi Tel Aviv - to back the venture. Presently some 400 Jewish and Arab wannabe sporting stars belong to the soccer school, and there is hardly an afternoon that passersby don't see the boys in yellow and blue, sporting kit bags to match, running around the manicured soccer field sandwiched between the kibbutz dairy and fenced-in army base across the way. The boys come from almost 40 villages, kibbutzim and towns within a radius of some 30 kilometers. Arara, a large village in Wadi Ara that dropped soccer from its school curriculum due to lack of funding, has now been "adopted" by Nadler and his team of educators, who have taken over the soccer slot at the school free of charge. The 28 Jewish and Arab staff of the Maccabi Tel Aviv-Barkai soccer club includes coaches, educators and facilitators who, beyond the daily huffing and puffing on the field, are involved in a number of off-field projects reaching out to underprivileged and at-risk youth. Quality sportsmanship and caring citizenship are two of the top goals that the Nadler team hope to instill in their young charges. The soccer kids have also participated in a number of fast-growing summer soccer projects like the American-based Soccer for Peace (SFP) program and the British Council-supported Football for Peace project from the UK. SFP is the brainchild of a Jewish New Yorker aiming to unite children in regions where conflict is rife, through their common love of soccer. Founded in 2002 and for the first years dealing only with children in the Middle East, SFP has since expanded to war-torn areas elsewhere around the world. This summer, Maccabi Tel Aviv-Barkai and SFP notched up another successful camp, bringing together fifty 10-12 year olds from Zichron Ya'akov to Baka el-Gharbiya - with representation from almost every Jewish and Arab community in between - to spend five days of intensive training on the soccer field and participate in educational workshops facilitated by the neighboring Jewish-Arab Center for Peace at Givat Haviva. The UK's Football for Peace project sees student coaches and academic staff from Brighton University in England, working together with British Council staff in Israel, teaching hundreds of Jewish and Arab children in summer soccer camps throughout the Galilee - including Nadler's Wadi Ara kibbutz patch. One thing that Nadler and his team blow the whistle on is politics. But they are more than willing to tackle racism and violence - the latter rarely rearing its ugly head with the young soccer players, who give their heart and soul to the game. Even during the toughest of situations such as during the second intifada and Second Lebanon War, the soccer kids and their heavy load of kit and dreams made it to the field. "Firm friendships are forged between the kids and they visit each others' homes. Over the years, some of the families have become good friends and we have an active parents' support group," explains Nadler. If not for the dream of die-hard Maccabi fan Nadler and his staff, thousands of children who live in close proximity to each other - but whose paths would never have met across the Israeli Jewish-Arab divide - would not have become team mates and friends. They have succeeded in throwing stereotypes out of bounds on and off the soccer field, while creating formidable teams that take top places in junior leagues and tournaments. Nadler now dreams of having at least 1,000 children in the program, and that one or more of his protégés will make it to a top league club or even play for the national team. Going by his dream track record to date, where there's a will, dreams do come true.