If I ever get too cynical about modern-day sports, I'll pull out a cassette tape, hook up my headphones and listen to the most inspiring highlight broadcast anywhere on the planet in 2005. I don't understand the language of the commentators, but that hardly matters, because sometimes emotions and events have the power to transcend the most imposing of barriers. Sometimes, even, sports do too.
When I push play, the Hebrew-speaking voices transport me to Ramat-Gan Stadium near Tel Aviv on March 26. Israel is trailing Ireland 1-0 in the 90th minute of a World Cup qualifier, and the home team is in danger of losing its longshot bid to reach the world's biggest sporting event. On their final desperate push forward, the Israelis pass the ball until it lands on the right foot of midfielder Abbas Suan, a devout Muslim, an Israeli-Arab who has heard racist taunts his entire career.
To my ears, the broadcast goes something like this, the decibels rising steadily to a roar: "Suan... Yossi Benayoun ... Yaniv Katan... Suan ... ABBAS SUAN!!!!! ... ABBAS SUAN!!!!! ... ABBAS SUAN!!!!" And suddenly I close my eyes and the images of Suan's miraculous goal wash over me again: his teammates, all but one of them Jews, piling on their Muslim brother in ecstasy; the sold-out crowd going bonkers, filling the air with blue-and-white crepe paper; and a triumphant Suan running to Irish star Roy Keane at the final whistle for the traditional postgame jersey swap.
I got teary-eyed watching the videotape for the first time back in July, and the recording still gets me every time. But Suan's goal isn't the only reason why he deserves to be SI's Sportsman of the Year. It was the way he handled his stardom, using his newfound stature in Israel's Arab and Jewish communities to voice the concerns of the Arab community while stressing, above all, that coexistence is a worthy and achievable goal. Suan himself is living proof.
Israel's other prominent Arab player, Walid Badir, refuses to speak about anything related to Jews and Arabs. That's his right, of course, and it's perfectly understandable. Yet Suan's courage is something to be celebrated, a rare trait among athletes that ties him to Muhammad Ali and Tommie Smith and John Carlos. In the end, history has judged those figures well. Even though Israel failed in its bid to reach the World Cup -- it was the only undefeated team to be eliminated in European qualifying -- Suan deserves the same kind of accolades. For his achievements on and off the field, for his social conscience, for being a model citizen of Israel and the world, he deserves to be hailed as the Sportsman of the Year.