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Promotion, a Cup, a 'Bridge to Peace'
A side from lower Galilee—a side blending cultures and religions—achieved a historic result in winning the Israel State Cup. In its 4–1 victory over Hapoel Haifa,

Bnei Sakhnin players lift the cup. (AP)
Bnei Sakhnin capped an ascent from Israel's third division but, more important, became the first team from the country's Arab sector to win a national championship. The club lacks a stadium and a fully professional infrastructure, but now enters the qualifying stages of the UEFA Cup. And, soon after its victory, the club chairman accepted a congratulatory call from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promising stadium funding.

Sakhnin's previous notoriety stemmed from an incident in 1976 in which six Arabs were killed during demonstrations against land confiscations in Galilee. The day, 30 March, is known as Land Day. Indeed, residents speak of a "Sakhnin character." "Sakhninites are considered hard headed and proud," reads a post-match account in Ha'aretz (Yoav Goren, "Like Setting Fire to a Tank with a Lighter," 20 May). "Yesterday [19 May], people recalled the events of Land Day in 1976, when one Abu Farag tried to set fire to an Israeli tank with a lighter. It's a bit difficult to set fire to a tank with a lighter, but then again, who would have imagined that without a home ground and without resources a team that only a few years ago was playing in the third division would be in the Premier League and win the State Cup."

Sakhnin's team is composed of 12 Israeli Arabs, 7 Israeli Jews and 4 foreign players. The feel-good spirit and integrative potential of football even overcame, for an evening, the nearly concurrent bloodshed in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, in which 19 Palestinians were killed (Alan Cowell, "Israeli Arabs Exulting in a Rare Triumph," New York Times, 20 May). "I was feeling ambivalent to go or not to go because of Rafah," Ahmed Tibi, an Arab legislator in Israel's Parliament, told the Times. "Two or three hours before the game, I was still trying to arrange an ambulance to collect the bodies of an 11-year-old and a 15-year-old shot dead. . . . We are trying to live our lives despite the blood. It's trying to be normal when life is not."

Ha'aretz editorialized the weekend following the Cup that Israel should do more to engage its Arab neighbors through sport and in enhancing sport facilities in its Arab sectors (Ron Koffman, "A Stadium Is Not Enough," 23 May). The question, Ha'aretz asks, is if such sporting success points to advances in equality or glosses over the deprivations:

Research by Prof. Amir Ben-Porat of the College of Management, who followed Hapoel Teibeh in the Premiere League in the 1990s, and by Dr. Tamir Sorek, who studied Bnei Sakhnin when it was in the Second Division a few years ago, indicates that for now the Arab public in Israel has clearly decided to participate and succeed. The studies show that the Arabs in Israel have not turned soccer into a locale for political differentiation. Just the opposite—instead of being dragged down by the nationalist provocations of the Jewish audience at some of the playing fields, the Arabs try to use the meeting to create a new discourse of integration. Like the blacks in basketball and athletics in the United States, the possibility for free competition and the chance to win create a feeling of a unified goal. They also nurture the delusion that meritocracy—the principle of success based on qualifications—will work in every sphere and will extricate the whole community from its economic and political inferiority. (Danny Rabinowitz, "Boost for the Arabs," 20 May)

Update: In October 2005, Qatar pledged $6 million to help build a 13,000-seat stadium for Bnei Sakhnin. Israel has also dedicated $3.3 million to the $12 million to $13 million total. The funding is the first by an Arab state for a town inside Israel. Gulf states have donated to Palestinian areas, but it took the persuasion of Israeli-Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi to secure the Qatari donation for Sakhnin. "[W]e are Palestinians originally and . . . Sakhnin is very important," said Tibi. "This part of the Palestinian people has been neglected for more than 50 years by the Arab world."

Add to Their Tallies the Nobel Prizes in Schmoozing
Tooting riotously on vuvuzelas, South Africans celebrated the World Cup finals that finally had come their way—four years later than expected ("Vuvuzelas Blare from North to South," Sunday Times [Johannesburg], 16 May).

All agreed that with Mandela at the fore, South Africa produced a spectacular bid.
Early analyses of the results from Switzerland credited the influence of the Nobel Prize–winning troika of Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and F. W. de Klerk and the emotional meaning that the world's largest sporting event would have for a nation once banished from international competition. Before a thorough discussion of why, on the first ballot, South Africa was able to garner 14 votes of FIFA's executive committee to Morocco's 10, however, the country demonstrated its relief:

Blaring hooters and firecrackers rocked the Five Roses Bowl in Mofolo, Soweto, as thousands of township residents and their white countrymen celebrated. Thrilled residents felt that the South African bid company, led by Irvin Khoza and Danny Jordaan, strengthened their presentation immeasurably by involving Mandela. "He held the ace for us. Mandela represents everything that is good and vibrant and positive about South Africa," said Gugu Sibiya. Mangethe Zwane, a former soccer player for Zola Young Stars, commended Khoza and Jordaan on a job well done. . . . "Doors are opening wide for every South African. A man in the street is guaranteed a job now." (Larry Lombaard and Gillian Jones, "South Africa Jubilant after World Cup News," Mail and Guardian, 16 May)

Mandela, by all accounts, made a poignant presentation to the executive committee the day before its award. Referring to South Africa's expulsion from FIFA in 1976 as well as his own imprisonment, the former president said, "It is 28 years since FIFA took its stand against racially divided football and helped inspire the final story against apartheid. While we were on Robben Island, the only access to the World Cup was on radio. Football was the only joy to prisoners. . . . I can confirm that we are ready, determined, willing and capable, as well as passionate, about hosting the World Cup. You, my friends, have it in your hands to make that dream a reality. As football generated hope on Robben Island, hosting this World Cup will give a certain meaning to this hope" (Grahame L. Jones, "South Africa to Stage Soccer World Cup," Los Angeles Times, 16 May). Others note that Mandela paid more attention to boxing and tennis in his 750-page autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. Whatever. (For more on football and Robben Island, see the gleanings entry for 27 April 2004.)

Even with Mandela's presentation, though, the London Daily Telegraph reports that committee members required last-minute hotel-room schmoozing to seal the arrangement (Mihir Bose, "How South Africa Swung the Vote in Their Favor," 17 May). According to the Telegraph account, a block of four votes—three from the Central American, North American and Caribbean nations and one from Oceania— controlled by CONCACAF chief Jack Warner changed hands from Morocco to South Africa in a last hotel-room encounter, with Mandela waiting in his suite until 30 minutes before the final announcement lest he be publicly humiliated. That final swing means some 21 billion South African rand ($3.1 billion) in income, 150,000 jobs and untold residual effects (Rowan Philip and Andrew Donaldson, "Economic Cup Will Overflow," Sunday Times [Johannesburg], 16 May). One residual effect relates to Mandela himself: a 110-meter statue in the Port Elizabeth harbor mouth, called the Statue of Freedom, that could be fast-tracked for completion by 2009. On 18 July 2010, Mandela would turn 92.

The Reindeer Are Dying, but the People Have Dolby Surround
Journalism of such high quality truly makes us weep. At risk of turning into nothing more than a blogging engine for the Guardian, we nevertheless feel compelled to call attention to Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark's weekend report on

A burovaya, or screw-drill oil rig, rests on the Siberian tundra.
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich's extensive business holdings, especially his checkered history with Russian oil giant Sibneft (" 'He Won, Russia Lost' "). Levy and Scott-Clark, a freelance writing and filmmaking team and authors of The Stone of Heaven: The Secret History of Imperial Green Jade, visit some of Sibneft's 10,000 oil rigs in Chukotka in western Siberia, the province of which Abramovich is governor.

In Noyabrsk, "a tiny, ice-white blip that is permanently covered in hoarfrost," the reporters meet Sibneft functionaries and ask company workers how one man, Abramovich, came to gain a £5.3 billion portion of a company privatized only 10 years ago. The answer, naturally, is complicated, but involves Abramovich's close relationship to former president Boris Yeltsin, the acquisition of employee shares by questionable means—allegedly facilitated by the government—and the impoverishment of fellow Russians, which enabled the 37-year-old Abramovich and other speculators to consolidate their holdings. Left behind on the hoarfrost, though, are those suffering the economic and environmental consequences. Says Mikhail Karpenko, who has lived in Noyabrsk since 1974:

Abramovich never spent his nights in the back of an oil fire-heated truck. He never assembled the rigs when a gusher was struck or helped carve out the rail tracks and roads that brought in more labour. But he did scoop up the shares of those too poor and uneducated to appreciate their potential value. He did hustle thousands more out of their stake in Russian oil as the economy collapsed around them. He won. Russia lost.

Levy and Scott-Clark also talk to Nenet tribespeople, to whom Sibneft pays meager compensation for exploiting the oil-rich territory. Sitting in a chum made of animal hides, Nadezhda says the compensation is £280 per year. "Is it a good deal? The trees are dying. In the summer, the fish float up dead in the river. The reindeer are sick. Once, we thought our world was so large. You could ski for miles and never see a chum. Now, the oil rig flares are getting nearer and Sibneft tells us we have to move."

Update: Investigative reporter John Sweeney of BBC2 had a look-see into the Abramovich empire (Sweeney Investigates, 20 January 2005), following on the research of Dominic Midgley and Chris Hutchins in Abramovich: The Billionaire from Nowhere. The conclusion seems to be that Abramovich is not shifty, just lucky, having bought state oil assets when they were available on the cheap. The most severe critique is that he has helped plunder the worth of his native soil and given little in return. "[S]ince the fall of the Soviet Union," writes Jim White of The Telegraph ("Chelsea Fans Might Soon Ask When Will Abramovich Really Put His Hand in His Pocket," 22 January 2005), "for all the proliferation of Moscow's McDonald's and Mercedes outlets, inward investment into Russia from the West is less than one seventh of the amount of capital that has flowed the other way. Much of that money has fetched up in Chelsea."

LONDON, 5 MAY 2004
Only So Many Ways to Score, and 'I Have Seen Them All'
Disgruntled Observer columnist Will Buckley purges his ill feelings about football in memorable fashion ("Why I'm Not Singing Any More . . . ," The Guardian). Buckley's criticisms and bile would have more resonance,

Will Buckley promotes his book (above) and spills bile at the same time.
however, were he not plugging his just-published novel, The Man Who Hated Football (Fourth Estate). At least Buckley confesses to his awkward position as being of one mind with the novel's protagonist, Jimmy Stirling, a similarly disillusioned sportswriter—a situation that, Buckley writes, has resulted in the merging of truth and fiction.

Buckley apparently has been salting his wounds for some time. Last year he took part in an Arsenal-bashing e-mail exchange with author Julie Welch in which he formulated many of his gripes about the media's obsession with the game, about the game's "unbridled capitalism," and so on. Welch parried him nicely:

Poor Will, Have you had a significant birthday recently? Going off football—it's one of the harbingers of middle age, like wanting to read your pension plan. Football is for the young. You think you're consuming it, but really it consumes you. . . . And then, when you're middle-aged, it spits you out. The sound of the Kop choir gives you a headache. You look ridiculous in a replica shirt. . . . You think to yourself, what am I doing here? You'd rather be at the Chelsea Flower Show.

More significant, on the same day, were the links that the Guardian's Steven Wells suggested between TalkSport radio's anti-immigrant slant and domestic attacks in Britain on asylum seekers ("Why TalkSport Is an Obscenity"). Wells protests when "the UK's most popular commercial sports radio station . . . gives a platform to nationalist bigots, quasi-fascists and racists of every strain" and, in particular, the use of code language: "internationalism" for Jewish influence and "multicultural" to mean non-white. "[H]ow could the nazis," Wells writes, "not love a station that debates (seriously) whether the word 'paki' is more offensive than the word 'brit'?"

These critiques sound spot-on, certainly more substantial than Buckley's. But we'll reserve judgment until reading Buckley's novel, about which the Scotsman sounds lukewarm, calling it "an entertaining enough novel that settles for a safe, no-score draw."

It's Surprising, but One Athens Venue Keeps to Schedule
As the deadline fast approaches for mounting Santiago Calatrava's 18,000-ton steel roof atop the Olympic Stadium, reconstruction of the main football venue for the 2004 Olympic GamesKaraiskaki Stadium—seems to be moving apace. The Olympic Stadium will host the men's final, but Karaiskaki, along with Kaftantzoglio Stadium in Thessaloníki, bears the brunt of activity. According to a report in the International Herald Tribune, FIFA and IOC officials visited Karaiskaki in March and were surprised at the progress ("The State of Play of Some Athens Venues"). Completion is anticipated by 1 July.

A webcam view of the Karaiskaki Stadium's progress as of late March. (olympiacos.org)
The stadium is to become the treasure of legendary Athens side Olympiakos, granted a 49-year lease by the Greek legislature as part of the redevelopment scheme. The €40 million contract "is exactly the same as the amount paid for the transfer of David Beckham to Real Madrid," Dakis Ionannou, one of the stadium planners, said last year ("The Stadium: How to Build a Dream," olympiacos.org, 19 June 2003). "I think that the investment made by Olympiacos is much better than this transfer." The club's development director, Dimitris Andriopoulos, was similarly optimistic:

Since March 5 [2003], when the discussion of the law took place in the Parliament things have happened, which normally in Greece would take at least four years to occur. All that we had talked about and foreseen was realized. The demolition began and concluded on time. Thousands of tons of left over material were not dumped in disposal centers but were processed in order to be recycled and become usefull to the reconstruction.

Olympiakos, founded in 1925 in Piraeus, previously had shared the Olympic Stadium, "Spyros Louis," with rivals Panathinaikos after vacating Karaiskaki in 1982. Karaiskaki had served as the velodrome for the first modern Olympics in 1896 and, in its first redevelopment, was converted to a football stadium. But its age showed on 8 February 1981, when 21 died following a 6–0 derby victory over AEK Athens. "The final whistle saw thousands of fans rushing to the exits, trying to get to the stadium's main entrance and celebrate with the players," states stadia.gr, a website on Greek stadia. "The stairs of Gate 7 became a death trap. The doors were almost closed and the turnstiles still in place, making exit almost impossible. People continued to come down from the stands, not being able to see what happened below because of the stair's shape." Twenty-one seats bearing the victims' names will be left empty in the refurbished facility.

Some are still worried about the stadium's location in Piraeus, not far from where bombs exploded at the Athens police station on 5 May. The port, a "jumping-off point for thousands of tourists taking ferries to and from the Aegean islands," is considered vulnerable (Kerin Hope, "Bombs Spark Olympics Security Fears," Financial Times, 6 May). | back to top

• • •

LONDON, 4 MAY 2004
Puns Ahoy! Women's Game Gets Fleeting Mention
Yesterday provided another opportunity to take stock of women's football some eight months after the WUSA's decline. On a wet afternoon at Loftus Road, more than 12,000 turned out on a holiday, shelled out £3 and thrilled as Julie Fleeting tallied three, her Arsenal side defeating Charlton 3–0 in the Women's FA Cup Final.

Julie Fleeting, in Arsenal yellow, buries her third goal in the 83rd minute. (The FA)
The 23-year-old Scotland international suited up despite a leg injury incurred the previous day in a Euro 2005 qualifier—a 3–1 loss to Germany in which she scored her 88th international goal. The Guardian's Georgina Turner, however, could not see the bright news through the clouds, lamenting that the women's game is declining, evidenced most recently by the return of one of England's best female sides, Fulham, to amateur status ("The Golden Era Loses Its Shine").

The fact that Fleeting played yesterday's final less than 24 hours after putting in a full 90 minutes for Scotland against World Champions Germany speaks volumes about the lack of equality between the two sides of the sport—imagine the furore should Thierry Henry have to do the same. It just would not happen. ¶Women's football also suffers an inescapable Catch-22 situation—inescapable at least as long as the game's current economic frailty lasts. Turning UK women's football into a professional sport could only raise standards, diminishing suggestions that the game is vastly inferior to the men's, or that this is a "hobby" made famous by the PC brigade. It would also mean higher gates for all clubs and the chance of subsistence—but without those higher gates in the first place, professional women's football remains a distant dream.

Fleeting, like most women footballers, must make special efforts. She works during the week as a physical-education teacher at St. Michael's Academy in Kilwinning, Ayrshire (be prepared to mute speakers if you visit the school's website), flying from Scotland before matches (Angie Brown and Ginny Clark, "Scots Hat-Trick Heroine Shows Our Men the Route to Goalscoring Glory," The Scotsman). Her father is former Kilmarnock manager Jim Fleeting, and, perhaps due to her extensive background in the game, as a forward with the San Diego Spirit she enlivened the pitch with her goal celebrations: once "marking," in canine fashion, a corner flag along with teammate Aly Wagner.

So, what of Georgina Turner's question: "They say a tree falling unseen and unheard in a forest doesn't really fall, so what for women's football?" Well, even with the hopefully temporary loss of the professional game, long-term trends seem positive. The Women's FA Cup has existed since 1971; this year, it was televised on BBC for the third straight time, with some 2 million viewers expected. The game has a past, a future and an exciting now. | back to top