After a jolting five-minute drive along a narrow rutted road, olive groves give way to a well-lit soccer field 10 miles west of the Sea of Galilee. Today’s practice has been delayed by two hours so that some players can break a daylong Ramadan fast.
As the current champion of the Israeli Cup, Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin is a legend among Israel’s 1.2 million Arab citizens, who comprise 18% of the country’s population. No other Israeli-Arab team has ever come close to their feat.
“Sakhnin fans are very enthusiastic. These guys are mad,” said Brazilian striker Cléber Vieira Rodrigues, 26, who joined Bnei Sakhnin in August.
He moved to Israel in mid-July after a one-year season with Liège in Belgium, but he only told his family where his new job was three days after arriving in Israel. And Rodrigues had his wife call them.
“You’re crazy to go to Israel in the middle of a war,” Rodrigues quoted his father in Brazil as yelling.
“My family freaks out if I don’t call them every week,” he added.
José Duarte, a 25-year-old Brazilian soccer player who has been in Israel for two years, finally convinced Rodrigues otherwise. Duarte has signed with Hapoel Nazareth Ilit for the current season.
Rodrigues’ 10-month contract with Bnei Sakhnin, which started on August 1st, includes an apartment in nearby Karmiel, a city of 21,000 inhabitants where suicide attacks are unheard of.
“I feel safer here than in Brazil,” Rodrigues said. “So far we haven’t had any security-related problems.”
With a US$ 2 million yearly budget, the smallest in the league, Bnei Sakhnin still doesn’t have a stadium. Every time the team hosts a match, it has to spend US$ 30,000 to cover stadium, referee and security-related expenses, according to team chairman Mazen Ganaim.
“Until last year, most Israelis had barely heard of our city. Now everyone knows where Sakhnin is,” Ganaim said. Sakhnin has a population of 24,000.
Israel’s battered economy, which shrank by 5.1% between 2000 and 2003 to US$ 109 billion, adds to Bnei Sakhnin’s financial woes. Because most stadiums are far from Sakhnin, many fans are unable to cope with the additional fuel cost.
“It sometimes prevents us from even turning a profit,” Ganaim said.
Bnei Sakhnin’s victory in the Israeli Cup yielded them a one-year, US$ 230,000 contract with Cellcom Israel Limited, the country’s largest cell phone operator, Ganaim said. It also secured them a spot in this year’s UEFA Cup in Europe.
Taxes dent one quarter off the team’s budget, according to Ganaim, which are paid to the municipality of Nazareth.
Of Bnei Sakhnin’s 24 players, 14 are Arab, five are Jewish and five are foreigners. Moreover, coach Eyal Lachman is Jewish and chairman Mazen Ganaim is Arab.
“The team is very much like a family. Everyone respects each other, there’s no racism,” said Rodrigues. “Whenever I ask about the conflict, however, people quickly change the subject,”
Conversely, the rivalry between Jewish and Arab fans is far worse than that between Flemish and French fans in Belgium, Rodrigues said.
When they played an away match versus Beitar Jerusalem in early October, five cars belonging to Sakhnin fans were wrecked.
When translating from Arabic or Hebrew, Rodrigues relies on Nigerian teammate Edith Olumide Agoye, who learned Portuguese during a two-year stint in Portugal. Lastly, both players resort to the team’s physiotherapist, Haid, who spent four years at a Spanish university.
Rodrigues has been married for a little over a year with a British national with Spanish residence. His Spanish passport, due in mid-2006, will enable him to bypass a European rule which caps at five the number of foreigners on the teams’ rosters.
Nevertheless, Bnei Sakhnin has already indicated its intention to hold talks in early 2005 aimed at renewing his contract. Since his arrival, Rodrigues has scored five goals in nine matches.
Should Rodrigues renew with Bnei Sakhnin, he has pledged to bring his mother to Israel for a three-month period.
“She will finally realize there’s no big deal about living here.” he said.