Success of Israeli football team puts Arab village at stake

REINE, Israel – Jamil Bsoul smiles. The mayor has clearly spoken this line before. But after all that his community football club has accomplished, and in such a short amount of time, that’s what makes it fun.

“Before the season, everyone was saying we had no chance of staying in the second division,” Bsole said. “They were right. Because we have risen.

His community’s football team, Maccabi Bnei Reineh, didn’t exist until six years ago. Less than two years ago, in September 2020, it was still a little-known club from a small Arab village of 18,000 near Nazareth preparing for another season in the Israeli fourth division. Now, after three promotions in a row, Maccabi Bnei Reineh is on everyone’s lips in Israeli football.

The team’s success, to the surprise of even the villagers, put the community firmly on the map.

“It’s a tiny place,” said Jamil’s nephew, team leader Anwar Bsoul. “When people from the Reine went to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, they used to say that they were from Nazareth. Otherwise, no one would understand.

“We had to explain to agents where the club is. However, that has now changed because we have become famous. Now people want to talk about the Rhine everywhere.”

It is not uncommon to see an Arab team in Israel’s top division. Bnei Sakhnin has been playing there for the past two decades, winning the country’s Cup in 2004 and representing the country in the UEFA Cup. Hapoel Tayibe and Maccabi Ahi Nazareth were also briefly promoted to the first division.

However, the growth of Maccabi Bnei Reineh seems even more unusual, mainly because the club in its current form was created in 2016.

“There has been no football in the village for 13 years—in fact, there has been no sporting activity at all,” said Bsoul, a businessman from Reine who owns a construction company. “We wanted to change that and bring people together through football.” He made a small initial investment and became chairman of the club.

The project started in the fifth division, the lowest in Israel, with a team of local players. Then the club was supported by only 10 to 20 fans. When Maccabi Bnei Reineh won promotion after their debut season, it soon became clear that life in the fourth division was no easier. The club didn’t have a stadium – a problem that had to be solved every week – and fans usually had to travel to matches with their own generator in order to have power.

In 2018, Jamil Bsoul, Said’s uncle, was elected mayor of Reine and arranged for the club’s modest municipal funding. “Football is about unity,” said Jamil Bsoul. He encouraged local youth to form an ultras club; it now has about 350 members. “We have the best fans in the country,” Bsole said, stating that “they are always positive and don’t even swear.”

In the 2019/20 season, Reine was in contention for a second promotion in a row when the Israel Football Federation suspended the league season in March due to the coronavirus pandemic and the team finished second. Only a top club has been promoted to the third division and Reine’s progress seems to have stalled. But when the financial crisis due to the pandemic led to the merger of two third division clubs, it opened up another place in the table. A federal court ruled that Reine should have her.

Playing in the third division seemed achieved at first, but Said Bsoul sensed an opportunity. He knew the season would be shorter due to the pandemic, “and thus we could sign the best players because they had less months to pay their salaries,” he said.

He suggested that the team approach the compressed season as an opportunity to dream big, to see how high they can go. Betting on yourself paid off: Maccabi Bnei Reineh again won promotion to the second division.

“Suddenly we were up against big traditional clubs with a lot of history,” said Anwar Bsole, brother and business partner of Said. “We were a little scared that we might have climbed too high.”

The team’s budget of 4.5 million shekels (about $1.3 million) was the lowest in the division for some distance. Anwar Bsoul said this means that Reine can only sign players who have been turned down by other teams. But it also had its benefits: recruits, he said, “arrived motivated to prove their worth.”

To prepare for her first season in the second division, last year Reine traveled to her first training camp outside of Israel, in northern Italy. One of his games was a friendly against Atalanta, a Champions League regular from Italy’s top league, Serie A. When Reine went 1-1 away, Said Bsoul said: “Then I realized that we have a really good team. . ”

Reine started the season strong and never gave up, eventually earning the last promotion of his line. It is the smallest club ever to reach the top tier of Israel.

What lies ahead will be Reine’s biggest test to date. Its rivals in the 14-team Israeli Premier League are not only champions Maccabi Haifa, the largest Nordic club widely popular in the Arab community, but also major local clubs such as Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Beitar Jerusalem. well-known racists who hate Arabs ultras once went to Reineh – when Maccabi Bnei Reineh were still in the fourth division – to insult the team and its fans before a cup match.

“They even came to our village and wrote insults on the walls before the game and then behaved violently during the game,” said Basel Tatur, one of Reine’s ultra leaders.

Tatur said his team has become a unifying force where such connections are often fraught. “Thanks to football, everyone in the village got to know each other,” he said of Reine’s most devoted fans. “Now we are all friends. It’s 70 percent Muslim and 30 percent Christian, but you won’t know who is who.”

According to the Bsoul family’s vision, this is only the beginning.

A year ago, a football academy was opened in the village, where 300 children aged 7 to 13 train and play on a new field with artificial turf. Last month, experienced Haifa-based coach Yaron Hohenboim was hired as the team’s athletic director. He will oversee everything on the field, from the grassroots programs to the senior team.

The next dream is a modern stadium in the countryside. The team currently plays its home games in the nearby Jewish town of Nof HaGalil, but its ambitions are greater than ever: a 20,000-seat stadium in a village of 18,000 as part of a complex that will also include facilities for swimming and cycling trips. and athletics.

“I told them how important the club is to our community,” Mayor Jamil Bsole said. “It brings everyone together and you can see children, women and the elderly coming to watch games and even practice. Even my 98-year-old mother got excited and for the first time in her life asked to watch the promotional game on TV.”