Sunday, May 22, 2011
Israelis, Palestinians play Aussie football for peace
Combined Jewish-Arab 'Peace Team' from Peres Center for Peace practicing for Australia's International Football Cup.
A different form of football was on display at Tel Aviv’s Park Hayarkon on Friday morning, when a combined Israeli-Palestinian team took on a group of Aussie expats in a game of Australian Rules.
The match was the first proper hit-out for the Peres Center’s “Peace Team” as they prepare to compete in the Australian Football League’s International Cup later this year. Only around half-a-dozen of the current team participated in the previous tournament three years ago, many are still learning how to play the game, and a language barrier restricts communication between teammates, but none of that stopped them from performing admirably on Friday.
Usually played between two teams of 18 men on an oval-shaped field larger than the average soccer pitch, Australian Rules football requires courage, speed, strength and good hand and foot skills. It is the most popular spectator sport in Australia - national league matches draw average attendances of around 40,000 - but the sport is still limited to only cult status abroad.
The Peace Team was the brainchild of Tanya Oziel, executive director of the Australian branch of the Peres Center, and James Demetriou, chair of non-profit Sports Without Borders and the brother of AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou, who together came up with the idea a few years ago of using Australian Rules football to form bridges between young Israelis and Palestinians.
As in 2008, the squad is comprised of equal numbers of Israelis and Palestinians, and its members include athletes with backgrounds in basketball, soccer and other sports.
Friday’s game was umpired by former champion footballer and now International Cup ambassador Brett Kirk, and despite the result – the expats snatched victory in the dying stages of the match - he said that he saw enough from the combined team to prove that the sport can play a positive role in bringing together people from both sides of the conflict.
"Sport, music and art are the universal languages and you don’t really need to be able to communicate to be able to play the game but it’s the medium that actually brings you together and that’s the wonderful thing about this,” he told The Jerusalem Post after the match.
“To think of what’s happening in this country at the moment, these guys, it takes a lot of courage to do what they’re doing. I’m sure they’ve probably got mates who don’t understand why they’re doing it, but the ripple effect can have a huge effect on so many people on so many other levels.”
Kirk, a practicing Buddhist, was known as one of the toughest players in the AFL in a decorated 12-year career with the Sydney Swans, during which he captained the team for five seasons and played in its 2005 premiership-winning team.
He said there was a groundswell of support for the Peace Team when it competed in Australia last time - even though they lost most of their games – and added that he has no doubt the team will again attract its fair share of public attention when it takes on the world’s best in Melbourne and Sydney this August.