But what if Suan and Badir somehow used their status to help forge common ground? As the captain of Bnei Sakhnin, his plucky, underfinanced pro team, Suan was already an icon among Arab fans, who had followed the side's remarkable 11-year rise from Israel's fifth division to the Premier League. In May 2004 Suan led Sakhnin to the championship of Israel's State Cup, a knockout tournament modeled on England's FA Cup. It was an unprecedented feat by a team from Israel's Arab sector, the equivalent, roughly, of a historically black college winning the NCAA basketball crown during the Civil Rights era. "I think Sakhnin is the most important project of [ Israel's] Arab people in maybe 20 years," says Zouheir Bahloul, a leading Israeli-Arab commentator. "It's not just a sports story; it's a wonderful message for the Israeli people."
In May, under crushing pressure to keep Sakhnin in the Premier League, Suan came through by guiding the team to victory on the final weekend. None of Israel's Arab teams (which compose about 30% of the nation's pro ranks) had ever lasted two years in the Premier League. With an Arab owner, a Jewish coach and a m�lange of players--12 Israeli Arabs, seven Israeli Jews and four foreigners--Sakhnin has "turned the attitude of Jews to Arabs in this country on its head," former prime minister Shimon Peres recently told the newspaper Haaretz.
Thanks to his performance in World Cup qualifying, Suan has also changed the attitude of Israeli Arabs toward their country's side. "When there were no Arabs playing on the national team, they didn't pay attention," he says. "Now in all the Arab communities of Israel they watch the games, and they feel like they are part of it. People used to tell me they didn't mind if the national team lost because they didn't have any interest, but now that I'm there they want the national team to succeed."
Still, Suan has been subjected to threats and taunts, which he has handled with dignified restraint. Racism is so common in Israeli soccer stadiums that the New Israel Fund, which provides financial help to civil rights groups, sends monitors to every league match and releases a weekly Racism Index to the media. (The right-wing supporters of Betar Jerusalem are the two-time defending "champions.") Sure enough, during a national-team friendly against Croatia at Betar Jerusalem's stadium last February, fans whistled every time Suan touched the ball. (One favorite chant, Abbas Suan should get cancer, rhymes in Hebrew.) "I was really upset," says Suan's father, Said Hamad. "I said to him, 'Maybe you shouldn't play soccer anymore.' But Abbas was very gentle about it. He said, 'This is how soccer is here. Take it easy.' He had to calm down his own family members instead of the other way around."
Everywhere he turns, Suan sees barriers to improved relations, flashpoints that aren't easily cooled. Only three weeks ago, in advance of Israel's effort to remove Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, an AWOL Jewish soldier opened fire on a bus in the Arab town of Shefaram, just 10 miles from Sakhnin, killing four residents. But if there can be a team known as Manchester United, Suan asks, why not a team that is deserving of the nickname Israel United? The national-team players are doing their part, he says, and now the fans are following suit. After a recent vacation in Eilat, a tourist town on the Red Sea, he and his wife, Safaa, joked that more Jews than Arabs were asking for his autograph.
"Before the goal I felt that my support came more from the Arab population in Israel," says Suan, who wished his "Jewish brothers" a happy Purim holiday--in perfect Hebrew--during the media crush following his wonderstrike. "After the goal the whole nation supported me. Even some of the Betar fans called with congratulations."
On Sept. 3, Israel's date with World Cup destiny, more than six dozen members of Abbas Suan's extended family will pull out their plastic chairs and endure another nerve-racking watch party in the courtyard of the family compound in Sakhnin, a city of 24,000 in the Galilee region of northern Israel. "I'm the host, so I hardly have time to see the game," says Safaa, who's responsible not just for the treats (coffee, baklava, fresh pomegranates) but also for setting up the Barco projector and the outdoor video screen. "Thank God I was able to see his goal."
A year ago, only the most deluded optimists would have predicted that Israel's showdown with Switzerland would become the nation's most anticipated sporting event since that lone World Cup appearance in 1970. At a meeting in Dublin before qualifying began last year, Israel federation president Menachem listened as his more prestigious rivals in their six-team group-- France, Ireland and Switzerland--argued over which one would get to pick up the quickest victory by hosting Israel first. Meanwhile, there was so little domestic interest in Israel's opener, against '98 world champion France, that for the first time in decades not one network bought the television rights.
The score from Paris: France 0, Israel 0.
Thus began one of the strangest and most riveting qualifying campaigns in World Cup history. Twenty games into the 30-match round-robin, the top four teams remain on dead-even pace: Each is undefeated, and each has claimed its only wins against lightweights Cyprus and the Faeroe Islands. The biggest surprise, of course, is Israel (2-0-5), which has captured the hearts of its supporters (and suddenly fawning TV execs) as the Cardiac Kids of the Mediterranean. Not only have the Israelis come from behind in five of their seven matches, but they've also scored the tying or winning goal three times in the game's final 10 minutes. It's enough to give a fan a raging case of shpilkes.