Kickstarting their football careers

Only months ago, a Liga Gimmel soccer team in Kiryat Arba was just a dream. Now it is alive and kicking, and playing mostly against Arab teams in the league.

Kiryat Arba soccer team (photo credit: DANNY MAARON)
Kiryat Arba soccer team
(photo credit: DANNY MAARON)
Yinon Butiva is the fulltime coach of the new fifth-league (Liga Gimmel) Southern Region Soccer Team in the Gush Etzion area – the bottom rung of Israeli soccer.
For years, Butiva had been dreaming about creating a soccer league in the Gush Etzion area, and this might have remained a dream had he not come across Neria Barzilai, a teacher at a yeshiva high school in Kiryat Arba and an avid soccer enthusiast.
“I’ve been playing soccer for as long as I can remember,” Barzilai says. “But since I’m religious, I had to give up my dream. And at some point I stopped believing that my dream would ever come true.”
“One of my students used to play really well, and I was saddened that he couldn’t figure out a way to make use of his talents and still remain at yeshiva.
In the end, he left the yeshiva and he’s currently playing for Beitar Ariel.”
The magic began when the two met. At first, they considered starting a team comprising Kiryat Arba residents, but the local sport director made it clear they had no chance of receiving the necessary funding – NIS 100,000 – to form a new team if they limited it to one city.
Butiva and Barzilai knew how badly local people wanted to play soccer, so they decided to enlarge the geographical area from which they would find players. And since they belong to Soccer Liga Gimmel, practices for new team Ironi Yehuda are held on Fridays and finish with ample time for participants to get home before Shabbat.
This was a necessary prerequisite, since most of the players are religious.
They advertised tryouts for the new team in the local newspapers and expected dozens of responses, but to their great disappointment barely 10 men showed up for tryouts – not even enough to form a team.
This was no doubt a huge setback, but less than a week later three more potential players asked to try out, Only months ago, a Liga Gimmel soccer team in Kiryat Arba was just a dream. Now it is alive and kicking, and playing mostly against Arab teams in the league and in no time they had reached 16.
By word of mouth, they managed to gather a total of 40 men hailing from Sansana, Otniel, Shama, Efrat and Sussiya.
There were secular and religious Jews, some of them new immigrants, and they worked in a variety of professions: hi-tech, restaurants, security and the IDF.
“Yinon called me in April and asked if I wanted to join a soccer team that was being formed,” says Maj. S., one of the two Israel Air Force navigators who play for the team. “I was so excited, since I’ve loved playing soccer my whole life. So I made time in my incredibly hectic schedule for practices once a week in Kiryat Arba.
“On my way home each week I would think to myself, ‘Am I doing the right thing? Maybe I’m wasting my time.’ I was very skeptical at first, but slowly the team has taken shape. It’s just amazing; it’s like my childhood dream has finally come true.”
Mordechai Elgrabli, a former Maccabi Rehovot player, has been entrusted with the administrative and operational management of the team.
“When I moved to Sussiya, soccer disappeared from my life. So when they came to me with their proposal, I didn’t have to think twice,” he says.
“My motivation for moving here was not political; I came here because I loved the sense of community. Most of the people who live here work in education and are not interested in a materialistic lifestyle. I guess I do live in the boonies, but there is a pool, a mini-market… and now there’s a soccer field, too. So we’re all set.”
During Operation Brother’s Keeper, searches were held in the area for the three missing yeshiva students. The new team was supposed to begin playing shortly, and decided that despite the sensitive situation, they would continue holding training practices as scheduled in the local stadium, which is paved with asphalt instead of grass.
One day, there wasn’t any other team available to practice against, so they held a friendly game against an IDF unit of Duvdevan soldiers who had a few hours’ reprieve from their intense military duty in the area.
When Kiryat Arba Mayor Malachi Levinger showed up to root for the soldiers, he asked who the players on the opposing team were. The charismatic Butiva decided to use this chance meeting to approach Levinger and ask for his help and financial support in this new endeavor.
The outcome of this chance meeting was quite positive, and when Butiva hinted to Levinger there was no proper grass soccer field in the entire region, Levinger called the mayor of Kiryat Gat – and the latter agreed to let the new team use their stadium free of charge. It was quite a feat.
Butiva believes the kidnapping and murder of the three yeshiva students in the Gush Etzion area heavily affected the people living there. It’s not a coincidence that the mascot the team designed includes three lions: It’s in memory of the three boys.
“After the murder, the regional council heads tried to turn it into a country-wide tragedy,” Butiva says.
“In my opinion, we should have used this as a way to bring the residents of this area closer to each other, at least with respect to sport.”
YET AT this point, the team had found both money and players. They’d located a business that was willing to sponsor the team and support them financially. A supermarket in Kiryat Arba agreed to cover the cost of their equipment.
Everything was running smoothly, until the unexpected occurred.
Just one month before the first game was to take place, the management of the Kiryat Gat stadium announced that they were sorry, but renovations would soon begin and the stadium would therefore be unavailable for the new group to use as its home field. Just weeks before the opening of the season, they were forced to scramble to come up with an alternative location.
“There were a lot of ups and downs over those first few months when we were trying to put the team together,” Barzilai recalls. “We were always busy supporting each other. Whenever I was down, Yinon would pat me on the back and tell me we’d be okay.
And whenever Yinon was worried we wouldn’t succeed in the end, I would be there to bolster his morale.”
Butiva approached someone he knew in the Jerusalem Municipality and asked about using Teddy Stadium. But the NIS 20,000 per game fee was way too high for them, and they had to nix that idea. Once again, the duo turned to Mayor Levinger, who in turn approached Arad Mayor Tali Ploskov.
To Butiva and Barzilai’s delight, Ploskov agreed to help them and offered the use of a local field for a fee of only NIS 10,000 for the entire year.
And not just that – the stadium manager, Afik Arzuan, agreed to coach the team.
But one major downside was that Arad is a full hour’s drive from Kiryat Arba. Had this been a soccer team made up of professional soccer players who received thousands of shekels for playing, it would be different. But this was not the case: All of the players in Liga Gimmel participate on a voluntary basis, which means they need to cover long-distance travel expenses and training time on their own.
And yet, despite all these difficulties, the players still manage to show up for practice. The coach said that anyone who doesn’t make it to at least one practice a week won’t be allowed to play in Friday games – and more than 20 players show up on average to each practice.
When asked why there are no Arabs on the team, Barzilai replies, “It’s not a coincidence; we don’t always get along. It’s a shame that politics always finds a way of showing its face.
We were concerned at first that fans in the stadium would shout curses, but it seems that fans of the Arab teams understand we’re here to play a sport and we expect everyone to be respectful.
“So far, in our experience, the Arab and Beduin groups we’ve played against understand this, and we haven’t experienced any improper behavior.”
It is soccer, though. Things can always get out of hand.
“I’ve never attended an official game at the stadium because I cannot stand it that people cannot root for their team without offending fans of the opposing team. Why do people feel they need to curse the judge’s mother or compose racist lyrics? Some of our players lost loved ones in terrorist attacks and there is a lot of tension in the air. We explained to everyone that we’ve come to play soccer and enjoy the game, and I believe that if someone were to say something inappropriate, he would be silenced immediately.”
Major S. is convinced that holding these games between Arab and Jewish teams is providing hope for all involved.
“In the back of my mind, I’m always prepared in case things turn violent, but I’ve always believed that the only way to achieve real peace is through sport,” he says. “Sport is a great way to form a connection between people.”
“Take, for example, Haim Revivo, who played in Turkey. He succeeded in public relations better than any diplomat ever could. When Jews and Arabs meet on the playing field as friends, this can lead us far in terms of cooperation and friendship.”
Butiva and Barzilai’s dreams do not stop here, though. They have a dream that one day they will build a local stadium and jump from Liga Gimmel all the way to the world championships.
For now though, there is a long way to go, with the team having lost eight of its nine matches so far.
“I’m aiming high,” Major S. says.
“With the help of God, I hope that 20 years from now when the team is playing in the Premier League, we’ll be able to say we were the ones who got this group off the ground.
“The craziest fighters from commando units live in the Hebron Hills – guys who are strong and could be top soccer players. If we succeeded in putting together a team in just five months – with a war in the middle of it, no less – then the sky is the limit.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.