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Gunners use football for peace

November 18, 2005 16:42 IST

Arsenal will start next week with the twin aims of building momentum in the Champions League and building bridges between young Jews and Arabs in Israel.

While the spotlight will be on their Group B game against Thun in Switzerland, the north London club will officially unveil five soccer schools across Israel as part of a wider 'Arsenal in the Community' programme.

Towns and cities in a dozen countries, ranging from Soweto in South Africa to the eastern Ukraine area still reeling from the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, have already benefited from the initiative.

Alan Sefton, head of the programme, told Reuters the schools' launch on Monday would follow an earlier move to help reconciliation in northern Israel after the intifada there.

Drawing on the Arsenal brand and the worldwide popularity of the Premier League, Sefton said: "We feel we can do a lot of good using that opportunity in these places.

"We can bring people together and do good. It might be social good, like in Soweto, making places better to live in, creating role models and creating trainers -- or in other places it might be bringing people together in the Arab-Jewish world."

Arsenal's involvement in Israel began at the request of the Misgav regional council in a previously untroubled area of Galilee which was hit by the intifada five years ago.

Israeli security forces shot dead 13 Israeli Arabs in October 2000 when they tried to quell demonstrations in the north in support of a Palestinian uprising that had grown violent.

In the aftermath, football has proved to be a way of reaching out to the Jewish and Arab communities.

"There were riots and people were a bit shocked it could happen in northern Israel -- this wasn't the West Bank," Sefton said.

"There were two ways the authorities could approach it -- either they could re-trench and everyone would go back into their own shell or we could try and improve the community relations.


"We did a programme that was very successful," said Sefton, whose club's task was to pass on coaching skills by 'training the trainers'.

It was then expanded to include other Jewish and Arab towns and villages, as part of a summertime "Football for Peace (F4P)" programme led by sports lecturers from Brighton University in southern England.

The F4P camp in July of this year brought together more than 200 coaches, 50 of them from Europe, and 1,000 children aged 10 to 14, drawn from 18 Arab and Jewish communities in Galilee.

Teams in the event, which is backed by the British Council, are mixed and each one has a European, Arab and Jewish coach.

Arsenal are now trying to take that further by encouraging more frequent training camps, mixing coaching and competitions for the participants.

"We believe football opens up people of different classes, social groups, races and nationalities," said Sefton, whose has a long-term vision for the club's programmes.

"We'd like to see a thriving football community playing under the Arsenal banner with everyone, in a way, playing together. And in the Misgav area, it is working.

"The mayor of the Misgav has told us it is probably the only scheme where Jews and Arabs mix on equal terms and come together on a regular basis."

That will also be the philosophy of the soccer schools, a scheme involving Arsenal-trained coaches which is being put together by Amnon Raz, head of Israel's coaches' association.


Though the official launch is on Monday, Raz said the schools had been operating since the start of the season.

"There has been full cooperation and tremendous interest from the local authorities, both Jewish and Arab," Raz told Reuters. "They have shown great interest."

Players who stand out will be picked for a mixed Arab and Jewish team for next year's edition of the annual Arsenal International Soccer Festival in August in Surrey, south of London.

The festival brings together youth teams from around the world for matches and coaching under an Arsenal umbrella.

Israel is not the only Middle East country attracting the club's interest and Sefton said it was "totally irrelevant" that he and several Arsenal directors were Jewish.

The club has a soccer school in Egypt and is having talks with parties in Jordan and Dubai, home to the club's main sponsors Emirates airline, while an Iraqi team played at last year's Arsenal festival.

Closer to home, Arsenal organise similar bridge-building projects in London, with primary schools from Jewish and Muslim areas presenting their religious festivals to each other and then playing football together.

"That's one of the reasons why we're involved in this," Sefton said of the Israel initiative.

"Football can divide -- but we don't want it to focus on divisions and tribalism. We focus on things that can bring people together. Religion can and does divide -- but there are also many common threads in religion.

"We think there's more common interest in those who love football than the reverse."

(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis in Jerusalem)

Trevor Huggins
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