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Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Updated: January 5, 2:08 PM ET
The Space Between

By Luke Cyphers

He is on his knees, palms on the ground, head down, facing Mecca. Nothing unusual about that. There are 300 million Arabs in the world; most are Muslim just like him, and many pray just like this, five times a day. But this is different. Abbas Suan has assumed this position on a soccer field in Ireland, wearing the blue-and-white uniform of the Israeli national team. Earlier on this misty June day, several hundred protesters in Dublin, many of them Muslims, held a march against Israel and its team, with some in the crowd decrying Suan for representing the Jewish state. Earlier in the year, as his club in the Israeli Premier League, the Arab-owned Bnei Sakhnin, played its rival, Beitar Jerusalem, a group of anti-Arab Beitar fans noted his presence on the national team with a sign: "You do not represent us."

Now, as Suan's forehead touches the cool Irish sod, a small corner of the stadium is in a frenzy, joyously waving Star of David flags. The Israeli team-his team-has scored a goal, a goal that will lift it to a 2-2 draw with Ireland and keep alive hope for Israel's first World Cup berth in 36 years. In the middle of it all, Abbas Suan celebrates too, the same way he celebrates every Israeli goal. With a prayer of thanks.

AN ISRAELI entry in the 2006 World Cup would be huge, set against the country's ever-present backdrop of politics, conflict and grim history. For starters, the Cup will take place in Germany, where the atrocities of the Holocaust helped lead to the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, in the largely Arab lands of Palestine. Germany was also the site of Israel's worst sports tragedy, when Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli Olympians at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich. In Cup qualifying, boycotts by Arab nations have forced the Israelis to play not in an Asian bracket against their neighbors, where they would consistently be among the better teams, but in the more rugged European groups. Israel's competition this cycle includes perennial power France, the talented Irish and solid Swiss; only one Group 4 squad is guaranteed to qualify for the 32-team World Cup field.

Israel controls its own destiny. A win over the Swiss on Sept. 3 would make the team a virtual lock for Germany. Even a draw might be enough, given that Israel's final two qualifiers are against the winless Faroe Islands.

The twist in all this: Israel, a sports-loving nation of 6.5 million, wouldn't be in the Cup chase without its Arab players. In an earlier qualifier against Ireland in Tel Aviv on March 26, Suan scored the equalizing goal in the final minute to secure a draw. Four days later, Arab-Israeli teammate Walid Badir scored on a header with seven minutes left, leading to another draw against heavily favored France. Some ultranationalist Jews who seek to banish all Arabs from Israel are fond of a slogan: "No Arabs, No Terrorism." Within days of the world-shaking scores from Suan and Badir, a new slogan emerged in the Holy Land: "No Arabs, No Goals."

Rather than shy away from the attention, Suan embraces it, comfortable as a symbol of his people. More than one million Arabs live in Israel, almost 20% of the population, and though they are citizens, many do not feel fully included in society. On the whole, the record on property and civil rights for Arab-Israelis has been bleak. Gazal Abu-Raya, spokesman for Suan's hometown of Sakhnin, tells the story of his village by driving visitors to a hill overlooking it. On one side of the main road into town is an Israeli military base, opened in 1999. On the other is a brand-new industrial park. Both were built on hundreds of acres confiscated from Arabs. Neither facility pays any taxes to Sakhnin. "We could have used this land," Abu-Raya says. "We are starving for space."

Worse, say Arab-Israelis, is the feeling that the government views them with suspicion, seeing them as potential collaborators with Palestinian militants in the neighboring occupied territories. Eight days after Suan's dramatic goal against Ireland, he and his Sakhnin teammates had their gear searched by police before the Beitar Jerusalem game. "To single us out, to search our bus and not the other team's, that was not right," Suan says through a translator. "I cannot accept that as a footballer, or as a human being." Suan openly refuses to sing the Israeli national anthem, " which refers to dreaming of a Jewish land. Before one major club match, there were concerns that Sakhnin fans might boo during the song. Instead, they maintained a stoic silence. "We will show respect to the anthem," Suan says, "but we will not sing it."

But Suan is no militant. "I want to come across as positive as possible, because I represent the Arab minority, and I believe in coexistence," he says. "If people love you, they will listen to you. They will believe you. You do not have to get violent."

Israel has had Arab players on its national team before, but during their careers, most have done their talking only on the field. Badir, whose grandfather was one of 49 Arabs killed by Israeli border police in the town of Kafr Kassem in 1956, is typical: he usually says little or nothing to the media.

Suan is something new. Though swamped with requests, he accepts all comers for interviews-without benefit of an agent or PR director. And though he's under intense pressure to be a role model, he never seems to falter. "He always says and does the right things," says Eyal Lachman, his former coach with Bnei Sakhnin. "He is a great leader, not just in football, not just in his village, but of the Arab people. He takes things on his shoulders. And his shoulders are always strong enough."

Strong enough to alter attitudes? A Sakhnin fan named Allaa Zbedal thinks so. "I have seen it change a little bit," says the 23-yearold construction worker, recalling an interview he saw with a fan of Beitar Jerusalem, a club whose followers are notorious for baiting Arabs. "He said he wouldn't mind if Abbas married his daughter."

SUAN'S PATH to national symbol was unexpected. One of nine children, he grew up in the shadow of several soccer-playing older brothers, but the sport came a distant second to education. "There was pressure from my father to finish my homework after school," he says, "so I would get up at 6 a.m. to play." He'd go to the dusty pitch near the town circle, or play in olive groves with balls fashioned from old clothes.

Abbas had a handful of chances to join clubs away from home as a teen, but he decided to stay with Bnei Sakhnin. He was a good player, not great, and he continued his schooling as he played for the second-division club. He'd probably be a teacher now if it weren't for Lachman, a Jewish coach who took over the club in 2003. Lachman latched on to Suan's charisma, intelligence and work ethic. "From the start, he said to me, `You are the man,'" Abbas recalls. "Every practice he added something to my game."

First Lachman honed Suan's already refined passing skills, emphasizing control and minimizing risk. Later the two worked on Suan's goal-scoring. "Sometimes," says the 29-year-old midfielder, "I wonder how much better I'd be if he'd coached me 10 years earlier."

Suan has great presence on the pitch, one that belies his wiry, 5'9" frame. He's always in the middle of things, perpetually in motion, barking out commands, setting up teammates with crisp lead passes. And as his game improved, so did Sakhnin. But the squad was still an underfunded, minority-owned club with no stadium of its own, not even a practice ground. Then in 2002, Sakhnin embarked on a series of fortunate events, beating several second-division teams, including the rival Arab club Tiberias. On the last day of the season, two other clubs lost, sending Sakhnin to the Israeli league's first division. The town went wild. "No one thought we would qualify," Suan says. "But all at once, everything clicked."

The 2003-04 season was even more improbable. Sakhnin won the Israeli State Cup, the nation's most prized soccer trophy; Suan's goal helped beat FC Ashdod in the semis, setting up victory in the final over Hapoel Haifa. It was the first time an Arab team had come close, let alone won. On the eve of the final in Ramat Gan, outside the stadium, 55 busloads of Sakhnin fans played a pop anthem written for the club. At full volume. The next day, Sakhnin, where two antigovernment demonstrators were shot dead in October 2000 at the outset of the second intifada, exploded again, this time with joy.

And it wasn't just Sakhnin's supporters who were moved. The whole country—Jews, Muslims, Christians, partyers in Tel Aviv—followed the saga of the plucky small-town team, a Middle East version of Hoosiers. Sakhnin's victory was a victory for the Arab minority, and for the majority of Israelis, who crave peaceful coexistence. One of the first calls Sakhnin owner Mazen Ghanaim received afterward came from Israel's right-wing prime minister, Ariel Sharon, promising money for a stadium. (Recently, the Arab country of Qatar pledged $10 million more for sports in Sakhnin.)

A few months after the State Cup win, Suan got a call from the Israel Football Association. National team coach Avraham Grant knew Suan would mesh perfectly with the selfless style he wanted to implement. "He is tough," Grant says. "Tough in the head."

Suan is the first Sakhnin player to make the national squad. "When I first put on the jersey," he says, "I thought to myself, I belong here." Not everyone agreed. In February, during a friendly match against Croatia in Jerusalem, some Israeli fans jeered Suan when he was introduced. And just a week after he became the pride of the nation with his goal against Ireland, the Beitar Jerusalem fans, with their ugly signs, did the same. "I cannot control what goes on in the stands," Suan says. "I try to ignore it." He doesn't ignore the positive changes. "It took 10 years before someone recognized me as a footballer. But in the past two or three years, people are paying attention. Now, on the national youth teams, there are six players from Sakhnin."

IT'S OPENING night of the 2005 Toto Cup, a tournament that kicks off the Israeli soccer season, and Bnei Sakhnin has traveled south to Ashdod. But the heavy air has everyone sluggish, including the feral cats wandering near the concession stand. The stadium, all concrete walls and high fences, looks like a giant military pillbox dropped in the middle of blocky, dun-colored apartment buildings. The 30 or so fans who've driven the three hours from Sakhnin are segregated from the several hundred Ashdod supporters by a chain-link DMZ in the center of the stands. Neither team will light up the scoreboard tonight-because there isn't one.

Zbedal, the young construction worker from Sakhnin, doesn't care. The die-hard fan sounds almost Bostonian when recalling his team's State Cup triumph. "The scores will be remembered until the day I die," he says.

Suan, the Sakhnin captain, remains the symbol of that victory. But he almost left the team. While his personal fortunes soared on the wings of his Ireland goal, those of his club sank. Sakhnin hit a losing streak in the spring and was nearly relegated to the second division. Lachman was fired. Meanwhile, Suan was tempted by offers from the Israeli league's elite, including Maccabai Haifa. And who could blame him? He has a wife and two small children, and only so many years left to play. When it looked like he was about to jump to Haifa, the Sakhnin town fathers and the team put pressure on him. In the end, old loyalties beat new money. Suan stayed.

Tonight, on the field, his reward is a scuffle with an Ashdod player, who shoves him hard. The Sakhnin fans are howling for a red card. Instead, it's yellow, which sets off an orgy of Hebrew and Arabic swearing at the ref. Later, with Sakhnin losing 3-0, the coach pulls Suan to cut his losses. When the substitution is announced, the Ashdod fans begin chanting at Suan—"Garbage!"—and taunting the Sakhnin fans. "Go behind the separation wall," one Ashdod supporter shouts, referring to the recently built divider between parts of the West Bank and Israel. Zbedal and the Sakhnin group yell back across the fence: "Terrorists!" This is just a few days after an AWOL Jewish soldier shot and killed four Arabs on a bus in Shfaram, near Sakhnin.

The standoff is more theatrical than tense, but a dozen or so cops descend on the tiny group of Sakhnin fans. "You want to see racism?" says one Sakhnin supporter, Suhel Gantos. "They send 100 police for eight Arabs."

Still, the game is too trivial, the night air too heavy, for anyone to keep this up for long. With the score 3-1 and the final minutes dragging, Zbedal breaks into song, a rambling, improvised ode with a main verse of "Screw you, I love my team." The police are laughing, as are a good many Ashdod fans. After the game, Suan sits, glum, holding an ice cube to a fat lip. The face of hope for coexistence between Arabs and Jews is bleeding.

Loyalty and honor have their price. As he sits in his comfortable three story house on the main drag of his hometown, Suan admits he could probably make three times the money he makes now by playing elsewhere. But he insists he made the right choice. "The respect I get here, people pay millions of dollars to get," he says. "It's not all about money." When other athletes say that, it's hard to believe; when Suan says it, it's hard not to. It's also hard not to believe him when he says he wants to be a symbol. He shows no fear of saying the wrong thing. "When you have confidence," he says, "the tightrope you walk on feels like a highway." And Suan is confident in his message. "People look at me more than they look at normal people, so I do my best to show the good things-respect and love." At every opportunity, he talks about the friendships he has made with his Jewish teammates: "We are like a family." Says David Ben Dayan, Suan's former national teammate, "He gets respect because he gives respect."

Suan is asked about the best perk he's received since the March equalizer against Ireland, a long, improbable kick that was the soccer equivalent of a buzzer-beating three-pointer. "The most exciting thing wasn't the phone calls or the compliments," Suan says. "It was my teammates. Everyone came to me and said, 'After all you've been through, you deserve this.'"

He tells a story about the goal. Just before it, in the 87th minute, defending on the Israeli side of the field, he caught a ball right in the gut. He was in so much pain, he says, "all I could think about was staying there, bent over, hoping the game would end."

Instead, he straightened up and started running toward the goal, toward a little piece of history, toward hope. He hasn't stopped yet.