Arab Soccer in Israel

Soccer may contribute to the integration of Arabs as individuals into Israeli society--but it simultaneously blurs their national identity.

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To bring this point home, the median number of residents of settlements represented in the National League in 1997-98 was about 154,000; in the second division, the median was about 50,000; and in the third division, and 29,000. In contrast, the Arab teams represented much smaller settlements: In the 1997-98 season, three Arab teams played in the second division, representing settlements whose residents numbered between 15,000 to 25,000; in the third division, ten settlements were represented, whose median number of residents was about 13,000.

Also, Arab fans' interest in their teams rose during the 1990s in comparison with Jewish fans, demonstrated by the large number of tickets sold by Arab teams relative to Jewish ones.

The success of Arab teams was accompanied by the success of the individual players--more and more Arabs earned positions on Israel's senior teams and even on the national squad. As I explain below, because of the symbolic power of soccer, this multidimensional success confronts the Arab fans with critical questions about identity.

An Arab Presence

Arabs in Israel are socially inferior. This applies to politics, economy, education, and in practically every realm where they compete with Jewish citizens. Soccer, therefore, constitutes a unique subsphere of Israeli public life where Arab citizens have made remarkable achievements.

In any situation of group conflict, it can be said that the empowerment of minorities in the general public sphere is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, such empowerment has its "subversive" aspect, which is identified with separatist tendencies or an aspiration to construct isolated social conclaves. On the other hand, when this empowerment is achieved within the framework of a state-oriented institution, it reaffirms the legitimacy of the majority's domination and represents the society's integrative tendencies.

The success of minorities in certain sports often turns the sports arena into a key location for the expression of nationalist feelings. For example, during athletic performances, well-known soccer teams bear the flag of their supporters' separate national identities. The Celtic soccer team in Glasgow represents the Irish-Catholic minority in the city, and the Athletic Bilbao team represents the Basque minority in Spain. The Barcelona soccer team represents Spain's Catalonian region, and al-Wahdat--the Palestinian team in Jordan--gives its fans an opportunity to vocalize their identity as a national minority.

At the same time, supporting a soccer team with a clear ethnic identity may constitute an opportunity for collective integration into the majority society, especially when the minority faces serious difficulties accepting the common symbols of the majority. For some of the Catholic working-class supporters of the Celtic team in Glasgow, fandom is not only an expression of their ethnic identity but also a collective integrationist channel into Scottish society. With the exception of soccer, these fans consider all other symbols and institutions of the majority Presbyterian.

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Tamir Sorek

Tamir Sorek is Assistant Professor of Israel Studies in the Department of Sociology at the University of Florida.