By Michele Chabin, Special to USA TODAY
KFAR BARA, Israel — When Israel's national soccer team plays Ireland on Saturday in its next World Cup qualifier, few will be cheering for Israel more than 13-year-old Khaled Rian, a resident of this quiet Arab village in central Israel.
That's because his hero, Abbas Suan, is one of two Arabs who have become national celebrities while playing for Israel, where 1.2 million Arab citizens comprise more than one-fifth of Israel's population.
Arab citizens in a Jewish country are important role models for Rian. "I feel like their success is my success," he says.
Suan and fellow Arab Walid Badir have helped put Israel back on track to qualify for the Cup for the first time since 1970. Badir scored Israel's goal in a 1-1 tie with France in a World Cup qualifying match, repeating Suan's feat in a previous match with Ireland for a 1-1 tie.
Israel (2-0-4) is tied with France with 10 points atop Europe's Group 4. Only the first-place finisher is guaranteed a place in the 2006 World Cup.
Cheers and jeers
Rian says the fact that some of the Israel national team's biggest stars are Arabs "makes me proud to be an Arab and an Israeli. It gives me confidence that I'll be able to succeed, too."
Israel's Arab citizens descended from the small remnant of Palestinians who did not flee Israel during the 1948 and 1967 Middle East wars. Their status in a Jewish state has resulted in widespread social gaps between them and their Jewish neighbors.
Yet in Israel, as elsewhere, sports have been an equalizer.
"Sport is the leveling field," says Zouheir Bahloul, a veteran Israeli Arab sports commentator and journalist. "In fields like high-tech or the civil service, you'll rarely find Arabs in high positions. Sport is different. If you score a goal and you win, you're a winner. No one can take that away from you."
Bahloul, who hosts a television show on coexistence issues, notes that there have been Arab players on the Israeli national soccer team since the mid-1970s.
"Back then you had (Rifhat) 'Jimmy' Turk, the man who opened the door for Arab players," Bahloul says. "He fought against racism, persevering despite the slurs from the crowds. Turk is a symbol, just as Jackie Robinson is a symbol for black Americans."
Suan, 29, is a devout Muslim.
Like Robinson, who gained the grudging respect of many white baseball fans while contending with the racial taunts spewed by others, Suan has been hailed both as a "Hero of Israel" and a "Dirty Arab." When not playing for the national team, he is captain of the club team Bnei Sakhnin.
Alon Liel, the president of fourth-division team Abu Ghosh-Mevasseret, the only Israeli team with equal numbers of Jewish and Arab players, coaches and board members, recalls that when Suan and his Sakhnin teammates played Betar Jerusalem, a team with notoriously racist fans, a few months back, "for 90 minutes the crowd chanted horrible things. They sang, 'Ahmed, clean the toilets,' 'Ahmed, get me coffee,' 'Death to Arabs.' "
Betar Jerusalem was fined for not reining in the hecklers.
Liel, who is Jewish, believes that the majority of Jewish soccer fans respect Arab Israeli players.
Taking pains not to condone Jewish hooliganism, Liel nonetheless takes a try at explaining it. "The hatred exists mainly in a place like Jerusalem, where there has been a lot of Palestinian terrorism. The Palestinian violence and the fact that the Arab population in Israel often identifies with the Palestinian cause leads to a very low level of trust," Liel says.
Fighting for equality
"There is systematic and continuous discrimination against the Palestinian minority in the realm of education, land allocation, infrastructure and budgets," asserts Ali Haider, the Arab co-executive director of Sikkuy, an Arab-Jewish organization that works for civic equality.
Jewish teams attract more corporate sponsorship and municipal funding than Arab teams. Until now, Bnei Sakhnin has been unable to host games because it lacks a stadium or even a decent patch of grass on which to practice.
The soccer field in relatively upscale Kfar Bara borders a grove of olive trees and the village's garbage dump. It has more dirt than grass, and razor-sharp thistles grow on its edges in the searing midday sun.
"When our kids play Jewish kids, they see fields with soft green grass," Amir Rian says. "They see the difference, and it hurts."
Rian says that, economics aside, sports are helping to integrate Arabs into Israeli society.
"Jews and Arabs play on many of the same teams. They sit together in the stands and celebrate or commiserate together. It sounds like a small thing, but it isn't."
"I've met a lot of Jewish kids through football," says 14-year-old Adam Assi, who plays on the village's youth team. "Otherwise, we wouldn't have any contact."
Suan, whose handsome face now graces ads for the national Lottery, does not take such things lightly.
"We have many, many Jewish supporters as well as Arab supporters," he says in Arabic-accented Hebrew. "It's very gratifying and very sobering. We're proud to be representing Israel."
Israel's integrated national squad "isn't just a team" Suan says. "It's a symbol."