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

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REINEH, Israel — Jamil Bsoul is smiling. The mayor has clearly said this line before. But after all that his community soccer club has accomplished, and in such a short amount of time, that’s what makes it fun.

“Before the season started, everyone said we had no chance of staying in the second division,” said Bsoul. “They were right. Because we go up.”

His community soccer team, Maccabi Bnei Reineh, did not exist until six years ago. Less than two years ago, in September 2020, it was still a largely unknown club from a small Arab town of 18,000 near Nazareth, preparing for yet another season in the Israeli fourth division. Now, after three promotions in a row, the name Maccabi Bnei Reineh is on everyone’s lips in Israeli football.

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

“This is a small place,” said Jamil’s nephew, team executive Anwar Bsoul. “When people from Reineh went to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, they used to say they were from Nazareth. Otherwise no one would have understood.

“We had to explain to the agents where the club is located. However, this has changed now, because we became 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 the last two decades, winning the State Cup in 2004 and representing the country in the UEFA Cup. Hapoel Tayibe and Maccabi Ahi Nazareth also enjoyed brief spells in the top division.

However, Maccabi Bnei Reineh’s rise has felt 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 sports activity at all,” said Said Bsoul, a businessman from Reineh who owns a construction company. “We wanted to change that and bring people together through football.” He made a small initial investment and became the president of the club.

The project started in the fifth division, the lowest in Israel, with a team of local players. Only 10 to 20 fans supported the club back then. When Maccabi Bnei Reineh won promotion after their debut season, they soon discovered that life in the fourth division was no easier. The club did not have a stadium, a problem that needed to be resolved on a weekly basis, and fans usually had to travel to games with their own generator to get electricity.

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

In 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 stall. But when the financial crisis of the pandemic led to the merger of two third division clubs, that opened up another place in the table. A federation court decided that Reineh should have it.

At first, playing in the third division seemed like a goal accomplished, but Said Bsoul sensed an opportunity. He knew that the season would be shorter due to the pandemic, “and that way 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 an opportunity to dream big, to see how high it can go. Betting on himself paid off: Maccabi Bnei Reineh got promotion, again, to the second division.

“Suddenly we were playing against big traditional clubs with a great history,” said Anwar Bsoul, Said’s brother and business partner. “We were a little scared that we might have gone too high.”

The team’s budget of 4.5 million shekels (about $1.3 million) was the lowest in the division by far. Anwar Bsoul said that meant Reineh could only sign players who had been dropped by other teams. But that also had its benefits for him: recruits, he said, “came motivated to prove themselves.”

To prepare for his first season in the second division, Reineh traveled last year to his first training camp outside of Israel, in northern Italy. One of his matches there was a friendly against Atalanta, a Champions League regular from Italy’s top league, Serie A. As Reineh walked away with a 1-1 draw, Said Bsoul said: “That’s when I understood. We really have a good team.” .”

Reineh started the season strong and never relented, eventually securing the latest in her string of promotions. It is the smallest club to reach the top flight in Israel.

What awaits him will be Reineh’s biggest challenge to date. Their rivals in the 14-team Israeli Premier League not only include champion Maccabi Haifa, the biggest club in the north, which is very popular in the Arab community, but also major national clubs like Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Beitar Jerusalem, whose notoriously racist Arab-hating Ultras once traveled to Reineh, when Maccabi Bnei Reineh was 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 the game,” said Basel Tatour, one of Reineh’s ultra leaders.

Tatour said his team has become a unifying force in a place where such connections are often strained. “Thanks to soccer, 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 percent Muslims and 30 percent Christians, but you won’t know who is who.”

In the Bsoul family’s view, this is just 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 hired as the team’s sporting director. He will oversee everything on the field, from the 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 town of 18,000 people, as part of a complex that will also have facilities for swimming, bicycling and athletics.

“I told them how important the club is to our community,” said Jamil Bsoul, the mayor. “It brings everyone together, and you can see children, women and elderly people who come to watch the games and even to practice. Even my 98-year-old mother got emotional and asked to see the promo game on TV for the first time in her life.”

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