In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles. �--David Ben-Gurion, former Israeli prime minister
On the night the Arab saved Israel, it only took one magical kick, a low-driven strike that in less volatile precincts might have been called a missile or a bomb or a daisy-cutter. Four years ago Abbas Suan was a minor league soccer player who moonlighted in construction to support his family. Today, at 29, he's the most popular Arab in Israel, a smiling McDonald's pitchman and the namesake of uncounted newborns, not least because of that remarkable shot on a March night in Tel Aviv's Ramat-Gan Stadium. As Israel's World Cup hopes were fading, Suan unleashed a scorching 22-yard goal in the 90th minute, giving the home side a 1-1 tie against Ireland and keeping alive the most compelling underdog story of the 2006 Cup.
On the night the Arab saved Israel, an entire World Cup--crazy nation rejoiced. From Haifa to Nazareth to the Negev, one in three Israelis watched on television as Suan dropped to his knees, kissed the ground and thanked Allah just before his teammates--all but one of them Jewish--smothered him in a gang tackle of ecstasy. In Sakhnin, Suan's hometown, the soccer mecca of Arab Israel, devout Muslims clogged the streets, honked their horns and filled the sky with fireworks. In Tel Aviv 40,000 Israelis exulted behind handmade signs (NO FEAR, ULTRAS ISRAEL, ISRA HELL) and turned the sold-out national stadium into a blue-and-white cauldron, the air filled with confetti, crepe paper and rapturous noise.
For one glorious instant all the divisive voices were silent: the Jewish extremists in Jerusalem who'd unfurled a banner reading abbas suan, you don't represent us; the Islamic extremists on Al-Jazeera who'd accused him of collaborating with "the Zionist enemy"; all those lip-readers, Arabs and Jews alike, who stare at his mouth like detectives (ah ha!) during the national anthem he refuses to sing. "The greatest moment of my life," proclaimed Suan of his role in the team's comeback, which he celebrated by literally wrapping himself in the Star of David flag.
Then, four nights later in Tel Aviv--can you believe it!--an Arab saved Israel again. This time the team's other prominent Muslim, 31-year-old midfielder Walid Badir, headed home the equalizer in the dying minutes to salvage a 1-1 tie against mighty France, and the celebrations raged once more. Imagine: Israel, tiny Israel, undefeated in seven qualifying games, is on the brink of reaching its first World Cup in 36 years--this one to be held in Germany, the most symbolic of venues--and two of the men are Arabs who've heard racist taunts their entire careers. "My biggest dream is to get to the World Cup," says Suan, whose team can take a giant step toward clinching a berth with a win at Switzerland on Sept. 3. "After that, I don't know if there will be anything left to dream about."
During the violence of the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000 and lasted for five years, right-wing Israeli nationalists had an exclusionary slogan for the country's 1.2 million Arab citizens, Palestinians who make up nearly one-fifth of the population: No Arabs, no terrorism. In the days after Suan and Badir saved Israel, a new chant echoed inside a Tel Aviv stadium: No Arabs, no World Cup.
In the more liberal quarters of Israel's Jewish majority and Hebrew media, the reaction was by turns festive and ironic. GOYIM EQUAL GOLIM! (Non-Jews equal goals!), rang one headline, while wry cultural commentators joked after Suan's equalizing strike, "Finally an Israeli Arab gets equality." The head of one civil rights group went so far as to suggest that Suan and Badir's goals could bring increased respect to Arab members of the Knesset.
But many Jews would rather not focus on the goal scorers' ethnicity. "We have Jewish players and we have Arab players, but they are all Israeli players," says Itche Menachem, the president of the Israeli Soccer Federation. "Soccer can be a bridge to coexistence. It's a bridge that we've started building; we're on it, and we'll complete it. Someday the time will come when an Arab scores a goal, but they won't say he's an Arab. They'll just give the name, and he will be another member of the team."
"To me the [Arab] goals were natural," says Mordechai Shpigler, the star of Israel's 1970 World Cup team. "It was supposed to happen, and it's good that it happened. There can be no better proof of normalization. It's better than any ambassador making fancy speeches about coexistence."
Israeli Arabs, however, contend that their country is a long way from reaching "normalization." Descendants of the 150,000 Palestinians who remained inside Israel's boundaries after the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war, they carry Israeli passports and enjoy full voting rights, but they don't serve in the military, and many complain of discrimination in political and social life. Distrust, they say, comes from both Israeli Jews and non-Israeli Palestinians who don't regard them as full members of their side in the decadeslong conflict. As Suan's brother Isam puts it, "In Israel, Abbas is called an Arab, and they curse him while he plays. But the Palestinians make a joke out of his playing for Israel. And Abbas is stuck in the middle."