Real Madrid's mere presence in the country made an immediate impact.
By JEREMY LAST
While it is one thing to watch from afar, it is so very different to see the reality up close. There have been peace matches before - most prominently when a group of Israeli and Palestinian soccer players travelled to Barcelona nearly two years ago. But it was an altogether different experience to see the players of one of the greatest teams in the world turn up here in Israel.
When the superstars of Real Madrid stepped onto the pitch at the National Stadium Ramat Gan to the sounds of Israeli peace songs early Tuesday evening it was somewhat dream-like. Their mere presence in the country made an immediate impact.
It would have been big enough had a Real Madrid team come to Israel this time last year. But the significance of the team's arrival had been multiplied with the three second half goals at the Bernabeu Stadium which secured Real's first title in four years on Sunday.
After the years of the Galacticos, when Figo, Zidane, Raul et al ruled all of Europe it has been strange to watch Real Madrid pushed back behind Barcelona into somewhat underdog status. The La Liga win just two days ago changed everything and elevated the players to the a level approaching the mythical status of those wonder teams of the early 2000s.
It has been a difficult few weeks for the Middle East with the clashes in Gaza, changes in the Palestinian Authority government and the tensions with Syria.
But seeing these giants of world soccer training with mixed groups of Israeli and Palestinian children as a prelude to the main event, the "Peace Match," one was filled with a feeling of hope. Just maybe projects such as these can have an effect.
It is easy to dismiss the Peres Center's efforts as nothing but public relations stunts in the face of a far, far more complex reality. What difference can this one game make when so many Palestinian terrorists are sworn to hate Israel one might ask.
But, as the Center's Ron Pundak noted at the start of the pre-match press conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday afternoon, the children are the future.
However many doubts there are about the limited effects of projects such as these, every little bit counts. One of the most important things is education, to change the mindset of the youngsters so they do not grow up filled with hate.
Yes, the Madrid game was a PR stunt, but it had a purpose as well. Both the young players who train regularly at the Peres Center's mixed soccer schools, and their peers watching the game in the stadium and at home on television, could not help but be in awe of the Real players and the example they set.
The players were clearly tired from a long season and could easily have declined the invitation to play in Israel so soon after playing the last league game. Madrid could have been forgiven for sending a makeshift squad, full of players from the club's youth team with just a few stars included. But they didn't. The fact that so many of the team's top players who played significant parts in Madrid's title win at the weekend made the effort to travel to Israel and play illustrated to Israelis both young and old, as well as the rest of the world the importance they place on encouraging peace in the region.
The list of players on the Peace Team included many recognizable names - none less than West Ham United's Yossi Benayoun and Bolton Wanderer's Idan Tal. But it also included more than a dozen Palestinian players who have yet to have made it on the world stage, such as Muhammed Hafed Abu - Ksheik who plays for Qattafi Tulkarem FC in the Palestinian national league.
Just to witness these players playing together in an Israeli stadium was significant in itself.
Of course we must be realistic. Nothing will be achieved with just a couple of soccer games. But it is important to be hopeful. The match might have been just a small step, but it made its point.
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