AM - Sakhnin qualifies for the UEFA Cup
[This is the print version of story http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2004/s1133839.htm]
AM - Thursday, 17 June , 2004 08:24:00
Reporter: Mark Willacy
TONY EASTLEY: As the goliaths of European soccer battle it out at EURO 2004 in Portugal, a cash-strapped and homeless Arab team is preparing to launch its season in Europe.
Sakhnin has just become the first Arab side to win Israel's State Cup. The side's victory means it qualifies for the upcoming UEFA Cup, the number two club tournament in Europe behind the Champions League.
The prospect of playing Manchester United or Real Madrid has electrified the small Arab community which supports Sakhnin. But the team has pressing problems – it has a huge budget shortfall and no home stadium.
Middle East correspondent Mark Willacy reports from Sakhnin in northern Israel.
MARK WILLACY: In clinching Israel's State Cup, Sakhnin has lived that clichéd sporting fairytale. The poorest side in the competition comprehensively thrashed the mighty Hapoel Haifa, a team with four times Sakhnin's budget.
Sakhnin's manager is Mazen Ganham.
"We don't have much of a budget, we don't have a place to train, and we don't have a stadium," the team manager tells me.
"But after winning the state cup we have been promised a stadium by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Without one we can't really compete in Europe," he says.
And compete in Europe Sakhnin will. The red and white's victory has qualified them for the UEFA Cup. Sakhnin is the first Arab side to win a place in the European competition. For team captain Samer Me'ari it'll mean taking more time off from his job as a primary school teacher.
"It's a huge achievement, especially after 50 years of Arab struggle in Israel and after many tough times for the people of Sakhnin," Samer says.
(Sounds of celebrations)
For the 25,000 people of Sakhnin, their team's qualification for the Europe competition is the biggest event in the town's history. And with several Jewish players in the Arab-owned and dominated side, the club is seen as a model of coexistence.
At a café in the middle of Sakhnin I asked Khaled what the success of the team meant to the town.
"I work in the education field," he says, "so I often have meetings with both Arabs and Jews. So this success has helped both sides talk more to each other," Khaled says.
Sakhnin will know next month which team it'll face first in the UEFA Cup.
The side has to win its opening two games to stay in the competition.
Captain Samer Me'ari says after that they could come up against some of the biggest names in soccer.
"It would be a dream to play against Manchester United or Real Madrid, but we have to be realistic because we first have to get through the opening two rounds," he says.
"After that we'll be happy to represent both all the Arabs and Jews in Israel," he adds.
For Sakhnin the sporting fairytale still has a little way to run.
This is Mark Willacy in Sakhnin for AM.
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