TEL AVIV: The players of Israel’s Bnei Sakhnin set off on the greatest soccer journey of their lives on Monday when they travelled from their poor town in the north of the country to Newcastle United’s St James’ Park.
Sakhnin became the first Arab side ever to play in a UEFA competition last month when they beat Partizani Tirani of Albania 6-1 on aggregate in the UEFA Cup second qualifying round.
However, their eagerly-awaited meeting with wealthy English Premier League team Newcastle in a first round, first leg tie is seen as the true baptism of fire for the Israeli Cup holders.
“I am tense but proud because I know we will have a very tough game,” club chairman Mazen Ghnaim said before leaving for Britain from the Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv.
“Expectations from us are high but this is also the first time that a small club in a small town will be representing (Israel’s) Arabs and the country and I hope we will do so honourably,” Ghnaim added.
Interest in Sakhnin’s exploits has spread beyond Israel’s borders as soccer fans throughout the Arab world tune in.
Offers to help fund the poorest club in the Israeli Premier League have also come from donors in the oil-rich Gulf states.
Israel’s Arabs have for long been ostracised by fellow Arabs from neighbouring countries, most of which do not have diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.
Israel’s Arabs are descended from families that stayed while hundreds of thousands fled or were forced out during the 1948 Independence War.
They complain of discrimination and say the government fails to give the same funding to their towns, schools and other infrastructure as it does for Jews.
Sakhnin’s 4-1 Cup final win over Hapoel Haifa in Tel Aviv last May in front of a 40,000 crowd – double the town’s population – was hailed as a sporting first for Israel’s Arab minority of 1.1 million, nearly a fifth of the population.
The team is made up of Arab and Jewish players and a foreign contingent from Africa.
Only about 100 Sakhnin fans are expected in Newcastle for tomorrow’s match but the whole town set in the verdant Galilee hills in northern Israel is expected to watch on television.
“We are scared but once the referee blows his whistle we will put all the nerves behind us and will fight on the pitch,” captain and Israel defender Abbas Suan said before leaving for London and then a long coach ride to the North East. – Reuters