Israel: can football act as tool for social integration?

June 28th, 2013


Maccabi Haifa Kiryat Eliezer

Just mentioning the word ‘Israel’ is enough to bring out strong responses in many people. Some of these responses are valid, some not so much. Even people with no direct link to the region seem to be experts in a situation which, in reality, has no right answer. The Israel-Palestine argument still rages today simply because there is no black and white solution.

Things aren’t going to get any better if people keep asking ‘Who is to blame?’ The real question that we should all ask ourselves, however, is ‘What can be done to make things better?

Integration through football

In January I was sent out, along with another young coach, to Akko, a small city in the Western Galilee region of northern Israel. For the previous 5 months we’d be working and training as football coaches with Arsenal in the Community in London, and now we had the opportunity to be a big part of one of their overseas projects.

Akko, often referred to as ‘Acre’ in English, is a very unique place as it’s one of the few mixed Jewish and Arab cities in Israel. In the past, violence between the two groups wasn’t uncommon. The situation now, while not perfect, is much better. A few years ago, Arsenal in the Community forged a partnership with the charity UJIA (United Jewish Israel Appeal) with the hope that football could be used as a way to aide integration between the two groups of people.

Throughout our 3 month stay in Akko we worked at a number of Jewish and Arab primary schools, as well as on various other football related projects, delivering football sessions aimed at all ages and abilities. If these experiences have taught me anything, it’s that the power of football shouldn’t be underestimated.

Jewish-Arab cooperation

We were helped enormously in those 3 months by 5 guys in particular, all of whom had a passion for football. True to the objectives of the programme, they were a mix of Jews (Avihai, Ofir and Tomer) and Arabs (Adham and Elias). You couldn’t have picked a nicer, funnier, bunch of guys to work with, and the whole Jewish-Arab situation was never an issue. As Ofir told me on numerous occasions: “I don’t care if you’re Arab or Jewish. I have Arab friends. I am only interested in the individual, if he is a good person.”

There were challenging times, however. Working with children can be difficult; working with children who don’t understand a word you’re saying is twice the challenge. Although we were given superb help by our local colleagues, using our feet, rather than our words, was often the best way to demonstrate what we wanted the kids to learn.

We taught at an Arab primary school once a week. We were given just the boys in each lesson (something which didn’t happen in the other schools, except for one religious Jewish school) and were left unsupervised (also something which didn’t happen at any of the other schools). We would usually be accompanied by either Adham or Elias, because they both spoke Arabic, yet we all found it tough controlling the sessions. The boys didn’t seem interested in learning new techniques. While trying not to generalise, the kids also seemed a lot more hot-headed than their Jewish counterparts. Squabbles would quickly turn into fights. After a few weeks, even Elias and Adham (whose own younger brother attends the school) were admitting that they really didn’t enjoy going there either. And this was a new school, supposedly the top Arab school in the city.

However, slowly but steadily, things seemed to improve. The big turning point was when we decided to play in the small-sided games with the kids – one coach on each team. From then on, rather than seeing us as teachers they began to regard us as footballers and their attitudes changed. They would be glad to see us every Sunday (in Israel the weekend is Friday and Saturday), because they enjoyed playing football with us. One young lad in particular, who had been difficult to please and unwilling to participate in training sessions beforehand, even asked us to come to his birthday party. While there were still the occasional fights to break up and boys who continued to act up, we no longer dreaded attending that school.

Towards the end of our time in Akko, many of the schools were preparing for a local tournament. As the tournament included all of the schools which we’d worked at, we were asked to come down and watch. Any worries we initially had over whether there would be any trouble when the Jewish schools played against the Arab schools were quashed immediately. The atmosphere was fun and friendly, with some great football on show.

Making a difference

There’s something so simple and so universal about football that it can unite you with people all over the world – regardless of whether you have anything else in common. I’m an average footballer at best, but here I was using my ability and my knowledge to coach in another part of the world. We weren’t there to produce the next Arsenal superstar or to act as scouts (even though we noticed some very talented youngsters), we were there to get kids playing football, to get them to have fun, to try to break down barriers that have formed in this community. The thing I’m most proud of is the fact that, even if it was just for a short period of time, we genuinely made a difference to many of the kids’ lives. So many were just excited to see us on the days we turned up at their schools.

And that’s the real power of football.

Coaching children football in Israel

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