By JEREMY LAST
Just over a year ago, Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho was a much more controversial figure than he is now.
In March 2005, he arrived in Israel on a trip organized by the Peres Center for Peace, just a couple of weeks after he had accused Barcelona manager Frank Rijkard of entering Swedish referee Anders Frisk's dressing room at halftime during Chelsea's Champions League game with the Catalan club.
Mourinho had refused to withdraw his accusations, incurring the anger of UEFA, the governing body of European soccer. But for a few days, the Chelsea boss put all the disputes to one side to promote the values of coexistance. Maybe the controversy even helped the cause of peace, because many English journalists made the trip to Israel and followed Mourinho wherever he went.
On Tuesday, Barcelona striker Samuel Eto'o will be arriving in Israel for a similar trip. The main event will see him participating in a soccer match in which a joint Betar Jerusalem and Bnei Sakhnin team will play against the stars of the TV show Eretz Nehederet.
It seems the Peres Center is getting it right. Even though the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is clearly years, if not decades, from being anywhere close to being solved, the fact is that we are all just people. If it is possible to get Israeli and Palestinian children to mix together and play together it can only be a good thing.
Each project has been cleverly designed to gain maximum exposure and catch the public's attention. Sad as it may be, celebrity sells, and this week's events have been created to attract Israelis, young and old.
'Eretz Nehederet' is one of the most popular Israeli shows on TV and the inclusion of the program's stars will catch the attention of many mainstream Israelis. The game has also been sponsored by the company that produces the popular soccer sticker albums, meaning the young soccer fanatics in this country will also be interested in the project. And the idea of bringing Betar and Bnei Sakhnin players to play together in one team will demonstrate the possibility of coexistance to the supporters of both teams.
Eto'o, a Cameroonian who has campaigned against racism in soccer, is definitely a big name, but the fact that he scored in the Champions League final last week will only help boost the international profile of the trip.
As Mourinho did last year, Eto'o will hold a professional workshop for leading Israeli and Palestinian coaches. Of course Eto'o is not a coach. And he is not Jose Mourinho, widely considered one of the best soccer coaches around.
Perhaps for this reason, the lecture the Chelsea manager delivered at a Tel Aviv hotel last March was attended by the head coaches of nearly every team in the Israeli Premier League.
It is doubtful whether Eto'o will be able to deliver a masterclass on managing international stars and tactical coaching as Mourinho did. Standing in front of some 200 people, he revealed the methods he uses to keep his Chelsea team at the top of its game - from training techniques to team-building exercises.
Even if some of the Israeli coaches seemed less than interested in learning from a master of the game, Mourinho's visit was clearly an inspiration. We can only hope that the positive work the Center is doing will continue to break down barriers in this country for years to come.
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