Bending it like Beckham in Sakhnin

Despite traditional attitudes that sports is for boys, the Arab-Israeli town has become a national powerhouse in women's soccer.

soccer ball 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
soccer ball 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
They say that behind every good man stands a woman. And maybe behind every good women's sports team stands a man. In this case, the man behind the Galilee village of Sakhnin's women soccer teams is Hamid Ghanayem. The father of five daughters (and two sons), Ghanayem says he is committed to women's soccer as a "tool for women to achieve equality with men and help them lead normal, good lives." Funded by the National Lottery and private donors, Ghanayem's organization, the Sakhnin Hapoel Girls Association for Sport and Coexistence, works hard to attract girls to soccer. Currently, seven girls' teams are playing in Sakhnin: two combined seventh and eighth-grade teams, two ninth-grade teams, two tenth through twelfth-grade teams and one over-16 women's team. A Sakhnin team won the seventh-eighth grade national championship last year and is currently in first place. Eight of the town's high-school girls play on Israel's national girls' soccer team and traveled to an International School Sports Federation competition in Denmark last year. The women's team is ranked ninth out of 12 teams countrywide (Tel Aviv University's women's soccer team is in first place). Ghanayem admits that he is up against serious competition. Not only against other girls' soccer teams in the country, but also detractors who insist that soccer is a masculine sport, a man's sport, and not for girls. In fact, just a few years ago, an imam gave a Friday sermon in a Sakhnin mosque saying that it was inappropriate for young women to run around on a soccer field in short-sleeved shirts and shorts. "But he wouldn't dare say that to me now," Ghanayem said. He says he has built up enough support to counter the belief that soccer and women don't mix. There is also growing awareness in Arab society that sports can be a positive influence for girls. He pointed out that there are religious girls on the teams who wear gabiyas (traditional head coverings) during games. Yet he still has a long way to go to get girls into cleats. Parents often bring boys to join soccer teams as early as age five or six, said Ghanayem. They encourage their sons to play because they think that one day the boys might join a professional team and strike it rich. But very few elementary school girls play soccer in Israel. Women's basketball teams are far better funded and have dedicated fans. When it comes to soccer, female players earn little money and play in almost empty stadiums. And just like the movie Bend it Like Beckham, the story of the daughter of Indian immigrants in the UK who goes against her parents' wishes by playing soccer, some of the girls on the Sakhnin teams still have to work hard to convince their families to allow them to play. "Sometimes the parents agree [that a girl can join the team] but an uncle or aunt says that girls shouldn't play soccer, so she drops out," Ghanayem said. He also cites personal circumstances that force girls to stop playing. One defensive player who used to wear a gabiya married two years ago. She got pregnant but had a miscarriage. Now she can't play - by doctor's orders. "I've heard people say it's not a girls' sport," said 19-year-old Reham Merdawe, who travels to Sakhnin from the nearby village of Ibillin for practices. "My mother is afraid I might get hurt." She said that her father has come to one or two of her games. Merdawe said that despite her mother's fears, she'd still like to come see her daughter play, but with Reham's seven younger siblings at home, she doesn't have the time. Walaa Hussein, 19, captain of the women's team, who also plays offense for Israel's national women's team, says she doesn't pay attention to anyone's criticism of her love of the sport. "If my parents are with me, it doesn't matter what anybody else says." Zahi Elayan, coach of the over-16 young women's team, said that he has coached both boys' and girls' teams. Coaching girls, he said, presents different problems. While a few of the girls played pick-up soccer in their neighborhood while they were growing up, he explained, most of the girls don't have years of playing experience. "It's not a natural game for girls, because they never really played it on the streets," Elayan said. The pace of women's soccer is also slower than that of men's. The women aren't as strong and they have less experience with soccer tactics. He also said women's mentality is different. Yes, he admitted, sometimes after a tough game, they cry. Ghanayem is patient with the girls' teams, however. When the high-school team began playing in 2001, it was in last place in the national school league. By 2006, they had clinched the title. Ghanayem's background is also that of an underdog who worked his way to the top. His parents were illiterate but, he said, "their simplicity was their strength." They encouraged him and his siblings to get an education. Yet when Ghanayem said he wanted to study sports at the Wingate Institute, they protested. "They told me, 'You have good grades in school and now you're going to learn how to run and jump?'" Ghanayem recounted. "But I insisted that this was what I wanted to do." He went on to be a sports instructor in Sakhnin and has always encouraged his own daughters toward achievement in both sports and academics. Today, his eldest is a sports instructor (and a Wingate graduate), the second is a lawyer, the third is a doctor currently doing an internship at Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, the fourth is a nurse and the youngest, a college student, was a national gymnastics champion in junior high school. Ghanayem also has two sons: one is currently a high school exchange student in Virginia and the youngest is in sixth grade and plays soccer. The Sakhnin men's team achieved national attention when it won the national championship in 2005. Because of its new status and budget, it attracts Jewish players. Ghanayem said he has also reached out to encourage Jewish-Israelis to join the women's team. "I'd like to have a mixed team of Arab and Jewish girls, and I know the girls would welcome them." He paused, almost wistful. "So far, no other girls have joined the team, so that's still one of my goals." The father of 18-year-old player Abeer said that at first, he tried to stop his daughter from competing with the team. But his objection wasn't on religious grounds, Hassan Ghanayem said. He was more concerned with her studies. Yet the twelfth-grader still did well in school and proved herself. "I saw how much she wanted it," he said. "Now I see how wonderful involvement in sports is for both girls and boys." Head coach Ghanayem said that for some girls, soccer might be their only way to see the world. "Girls who come from a family of eight get to travel abroad with the soccer team," he said. "Our organization paid for their trip. It's a dream for some of them. Where else could they get the chance?"