An Israeli Soccer Team’s Success Puts Its Arab Village on the Map

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

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

His community’s 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 village of 18,000 people near Nazareth, preparing for yet another season in the Israeli fourth division. Now, after three promotions in quick succession, the name Maccabi Bnei Reineh is on everyone’s lips in Israeli soccer.

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

“This is a tiny place,” said Jamil’s nephew, the team executive Anwar Bsoul. “When people from Reineh went to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, they used to say they were from Nazareth. Otherwise nobody would have understood.

“We had to explain to agents where the club is situated. This has changed now, though, 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 short spells in the first division.

The rise of Maccabi Bnei Reineh has felt even more extraordinary, though, mostly 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 sporting activity at all,” Said Bsoul, a businessman from Reineh who owns a construction company, said. “We wanted to change that, and unite people through football.” He made a small initial investment and became the club’s chairman.

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 its debut season, it soon found life in the fourth division wasn’t any easier. The club didn’t have a stadium — a problem that needed solving on a weekly basis — and fans usually had to travel to matches with their own generator to have a power supply.

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

In the 2019-20 season, Reineh was battling for a second straight promotion when, because of the coronavirus pandemic, Israel’s soccer federation suspended the league season in March, with the team in second place. Only the top club was promoted to the third division, and Reineh’s progress appeared to stall. But when the pandemic’s financial crunch led two third-division clubs to merge, that opened another place in the table. A federation court decided that Reineh should have it.

Initially, playing in the third division seemed like a goal achieved, but Said Bsoul sensed an opportunity. He knew the season would be shorter because of the pandemic, “and thus we could sign better players because there were less months to pay their salaries,” he said.

He suggested that the team approach the condensed season as a chance to dream bigger, to see how high it could climb. Betting on itself paid off: Maccabi Bnei Reineh won promotion, again, to the second division.

“Suddenly we were playing against big, traditional clubs with a huge history,” said Anwar Bsoul, Said’s brother and business partner. “We were a bit frightened that we might have risen too high.”

The team’s budget of 4.5 million shekels (about $1.3 million) was the lowest in the division by some distance. Anwar Bsoul said that meant Reineh could sign only players who had been discarded by other teams. But that had its benefits, too: The recruits, he said, “arrived motivated to prove their worth.”

To prepare for its first season in the second division, Reineh traveled last year to its first training camp outside Israel, in northern Italy. One of its games there was a friendly against Atalanta — a Champions League regular from Italy’s top league, Serie A. When Reineh walked off with a 1-1 tie, Said Bsoul said, “That’s when I understood that we really have a good squad.”

Reineh started the season strong and never relented, eventually securing the latest in its string of promotions. It is the smallest club ever to reach Israel’s top tier.

What awaits will be Reineh’s biggest challenge to date. Its rivals in the 14-team Israeli Premier League not only include the champion Maccabi Haifa, the biggest northern club, which is widely popular in the Arab community, but also major domestic 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 it,” said Basel Tatour, one of the Reineh ultra leaders.

Tatour said his team has become a unifying force in a place where such connections are often fraught. “Thanks to football, 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.”

According to the Bsoul family’s vision, this is only the beginning.

A year ago, a soccer academy was established in the village, with 300 children ages 7 to 13 training and playing on a new artificial turf field. Last month, the experienced, Haifa-born coach Yaron Hochenboim was recruited as the team’s sporting director. He will supervise everything on the field, from the grass-roots 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 greater than ever: a 20,000-seat stadium in a village of 18,000 residents, as part of a complex that will also contain facilities for swimming, cycling and track and field.

“I told them how important the club is to our community,” said Jamil Bsoul, the mayor. “It unites everyone, and you can see children, women and elderly coming to watch games and even training sessions. Even my 98-year-old mother became excited and asked to watch the promotion game on TV for the first time in her life.”