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The success of an Israeli soccer team puts its Arab village on the map

REINEH, Israel — Jamil Bsoul smiles. The mayor has spoken that line clearly before. But after all his community soccer club has achieved in such a short time, that’s what makes it fun.

“Before the start of the season, everyone was saying that we had no chance of staying in the second division,” Bsoul said. “They were right. Because we went up.

His community’s football team, Maccabi Bnei Reineh, only existed six years ago. Less than two years ago, in September 2020, it was still a largely unknown club from a small Arab village of 18,000 inhabitants near Nazareth, which was preparing for yet another season in the Israeli fourth division. Today, after three promotions in quick succession, Maccabi Bnei Reineh’s name is on everyone’s lips in Israeli football.

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

“It’s a tiny place,” said Jamil’s nephew, team manager Anwar Bsoul. “When people from Reineh went to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, they said they were from Nazareth. Otherwise, no one would have understood.

“We had to explain to the agents where the club is located. That has changed now, however, because we’ve become famous. Now people want to talk about Reineh everywhere.

It is not uncommon to see an Arab team in the Israeli top flight. Bnei Sakhnin has been playing there for two decades, winning the State Cup in 2004 and representing the country in the UEFA Cup. Hapoel Tayibe and Maccabi Ahi Nazareth also had short spells in the top division.

Maccabi Bnei Reineh’s rise, however, has been even more extraordinary, mainly because the club was established in its current form in 2016.

“There was no football in the village for 13 years – in fact there was no sporting activity,” said Said Bsoul, a businessman from Reineh who owns a construction company. “We wanted to change that and unite people through football.” He made a small initial investment and became the club’s president.

The project started in the fifth division, the lowest in Israel, with a team of local players. Only 10-20 fans supported the club at the time. When Maccabi Bnei Reineh were promoted after their debut season, they quickly discovered that life in the fourth division wasn’t any easier. The club had no stadium – a problem which had to be solved every week – and supporters usually had to travel to matches with their own generator to get a power supply.

In 2018 Jamil Bsoul, Said’s uncle, was elected mayor of Reineh and arranged modest municipal funding for the club. “Football is about unity,” said Jamil Bsoul. He encouraged local youngsters to start an ‘ultras’ club; it now has about 350 people as members. “We have the best fans in the country,” said Said Bsoul, saying “they are always positive and don’t even curse.”

During the 2019-20 season, Reineh was fighting for a second consecutive promotion when, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Israel Football Federation suspended the league season in March, with the team in second place. . Only the top club were promoted to the Third Division and Reineh’s progress seemed to stagnate. But when the pandemic financial crisis led to two Third Division clubs merging, it opened up another place in the table. A federation court ruled that Reineh should have it.

At first, playing in the third division seemed like an accomplished goal, but Said Bsoul sensed an opportunity. He knew the season would be shorter because of the pandemic, “and so we could sign better players because there were fewer months to pay their salaries,” he said.

He suggested the team approach the condensed season as a chance to dream bigger, to see how high they could climb. The bet on itself paid off: Maccabi Bnei Reineh were once again promoted to the second division.

“Suddenly we were playing big traditional clubs with huge history,” said Anwar Bsoul, Said’s brother and business partner. “We were a bit afraid of having gone too high.”

The team’s budget of 4.5 million shekels (approximately $1.3 million) was by far the lowest in the division. Anwar Bsoul said this meant Reineh could only sign players who had been ruled out by other teams. But it also had its perks: The recruits, he said, “came in motivated to prove their worth.”

To prepare for his first season in the second division, Reineh last year traveled to his first training camp outside Israel, in northern Italy. One of his games was a friendly against Atalanta – a Champions League regular in Italy’s top league, Serie A. When Reineh left with a 1-1 draw, Said Bsoul said: “That’s when I realized we really had a good team.”

Reineh started the season strong and never gave up, eventually earning the last of her series of promotions. It is the smallest club to have reached the highest level in Israel.

What lies ahead will be Reineh’s biggest challenge yet. Its rivals in the 14-team Israeli Premier League include not only champion Maccabi Haifa, the biggest club in the North, which is very popular in the Arab community, but also big domestic clubs like Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Beitar Jerusalem, whose notoriously racist and Arab-hating ultras once traveled to Reineh – when Maccabi Bnei Reineh were still in the fourth division – to abuse 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 it,” said Basel Tatour, one of Reineh’s ultra leaders.

Tatour said his team has become a unifying force in a place where such relationships are often strained. “Through football, everyone in the village got to know each other,” he said of Reineh’s most devoted fans. “We are all friends now. There are 70% Muslims and 30% Christians, but you won’t know which is which.

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

A year ago, a football academy was established in the village, with 300 children aged 7 to 13 training and playing on a new artificial turf pitch. Last month, experienced Haifa-born coach Yaron Hochenboim was recruited as the team’s sporting director. He will oversee everything on the pitch, from grassroots programs to the senior team.

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

“I told them how important the club is to our community,” said Mayor Jamil Bsoul. “It brings everyone together, and you can see children, women and old people coming to watch games and even training sessions. Even my 98-year-old mother got excited and asked to watch the game. promotion on television for the first time in his life.

nytimes sport

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