Divided by Country, United by Football

March 13th, 2014

Israel Football

The morning sun sits high above El-Manara school. It is another warm day in Northern Israel, and the playground is bathed in light and full of noise. The noise comes from the young boys who are currently in the midst of a football match.

“Yanni!”, shouts Ahmed at his teammate, “YANNI!

Unfortunately, his friend is robbed by an opponent before he’s able to give Ahmed the ball. Ahmed is furious and abruptly descends into a strop. It’s not the first time. It won’t be the last. Suddenly, his strop is interrupted by another opportunity for his team. This time he does receive the ball. He turns and has a shot at goal. It sails wide rather disappointingly. His poor attempt puts him back in his strop. It’s incredible how a simple football can have such an effect on a person.

On the other team, Riad, a precocious young talent, accepts the pass from his goalkeeper. He looks up for options, but never has any intention of relinquishing the ball. He slaloms between two players, cuts back on himself and then decides to dribble past another. He lets off a rocket of a shot and the ‘keeper, mostly because he’s been made to play in goal against his will, does little to stop it. His teammates scream at him, but it’s doubtful he would have been able to save it even if he had attempted to. Riad backpeddles towards his own goal grinning. It’s his sixth goal of the game and he’s loving it. He tells us that he plays for Maccabi Haifa’s youth team and we have no reason not to believe him. Acre is only down the road from Haifa, and he’s clearly a level above the rest of the kids we’ve seen play here.

*

Across the city, at Noam Herzog School, the boys are in good spirits. They’ve been inside a classroom for the majority of the day and are keen to play. They also know that, with the local tournament not too far away, every P.E. lesson gives them the chance to impress their teacher, Nisim, and perhaps – if they haven’t already – make a case for their inclusion in the team.

Omer, a small boy who makes up for his lack of technique with good energy and a high work rate, asks us to put in a good word for him with Nisim. His English is superb, much better than his teacher’s, and you can’t help but like him.

*

A short walk from El-Manara school, where New Acre meets the Old City, boys and girls take part in their pre-game stretches at Weizman school.

“One, two, free, fooor…” they chant, mimicking their coach, before falling to the floor, unable to hold the stretch any longer. Some of the girls here enjoy playing as much as the boys; some not so much, although they do enjoy screaming every time the ball flies anywhere near them. If it does happen to land at their feet, a good old-fashioned toe-punt sees it soar down the pitch and they jump with delight.

*

At Haverstock School in Chalk Farm, North London, the Year 11s are taking part in football practise. They aren’t as fortunate with the weather as their Israeli counterparts, but are unaware of this fact. Ignorance is bliss, as they say.

Wilson, a towering beast of a boy, intercepts the ball and drives forward, away from his penalty area. At first glance you’d place him in his mid-twenties, not the tender 16 that he really is. Yet, for such a strong and powerful teenager, he is surprisingly good on the ball. He dribbles past one opponent before sending the ball to Johnville.

Johnville is easily the most talented of the bunch. He has a sort of languid technique on the ball. You can see he’s not playing at 100%, purely because 100% would involve too much effort and, in this arena at least, he has no need to over-exert himself. An academy player for Leyton Orient, Johnville would sign for Stoke, of all teams, a year later. He’s still there now. You can find him on Football Manager too, if you’re that way inclined.

The Year 11 Coach Jamie laments the fact that Johnville doesn’t get to play for the school team as much as he’d want. Leyton Orient training is the obvious priority, although the fact that Johnville still stays after school to train with the football team demonstrates his natural love for the game.

*

So many differences exist between all those previously mentioned: nationality, ethnic background, language, upbringing, gender, religion. They are divided by the countries in which they were born, and even by the cities in which they live.

Yet one overriding similarity remains. When the whistle goes for the end of the lesson they all, unanimously, plead for just five more minutes.

 

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