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Israel's First Arab Soccer Superstar Tells His Story

Rifaat Turk, Israel’s first Arab soccer superstar, who paved the way for dozens of Arab players, tells Shlomi Eldar about the racism and challenges he has faced.

“I don’t believe that there is a single player on the football field anywhere in the world who suffered from racism like I did,” said Rifaat “Jimmy” Turk last week when we met at the Babai restaurant overlooking the beach in his hometown of Jaffa.

It was right here on this beach that Turk began the career that made him a top-ranked soccer star. Turk no longer remembers the person’s name, but a fan of HaPo’el Tel Aviv saw him dribbling a ball along the beach with his friends and invited him for a training session with the team. He kept inviting him until Turk agreed to go, and the rest is history.

Rifaat Turk has became a symbol of the HaPo’el Tel Aviv soccer team and a trailblazer for all the other Arab players in Israel, who now play for just about every team in the country’s top divisions, often becoming stars themselves. Today, there is hardly a team in the country’s top divisions that doesn’t have at least two or three Arab players. The one team that still keeps Arab players off the field for ideological reasons is Beitar Jerusalem. That seemed to be a good starting point for our conversation. 

We chose a table overlooking the sea, and even before the waiter arrived, Turk launched into a heart-rending monologue. It seemed like the question was already hovering above us, even though I hadn’t asked it yet. It was as if I'd struck a nerve without saying anything.

“I remember games when all the fans in the stadium would get up on their feet,” Turk told me. “It was just me against them. They would curse me, spit at me, throw things at me. It happened just about every second. Boom! An apple! Boom! A pear! And then there was all the cursing. There wasn’t a single security incident in the country that I wasn’t linked to in one way or another. Do you remember the attack on the Savoy Hotel in Tel Aviv [March 1975]? For days, fans shouted at me, “You killed those people in the attack, and now you’re coming here to play?”  

Was it really like that?

“Yes. The climax came after the Jewish Underground planted bombs in the cars of mayors in the West Bank [June 1980]. It was a formative moment for me. That Saturday we were playing against Beitar Jerusalem at our home stadium in Bloomfield. They kept cursing me the entire game, saying things like, ‘Hey, Arab! Too bad you didn’t lose your legs too, just like Bassam Shakaa [the mayor of Nablus, who lost his legs in the bombing]. Imagine more than half the stadium cursing you, chanting, ‘Bassam Shakaa! Bassam Shakaa!’ They kept shouting and making the sound of bombs going off.

"At the time, I mumbled to myself, ‘Ya rab! Ya rab! [Oh, God! Oh, God!]. Just let me do it! Just let me do it!’ I was pleading. I was praying to give it to them, to answer them in my own special way. The clock was running out, and I kept praying, like I had just come in from Mecca. We were in the 80th minute of the game, and Beitar was beating us one-nothing. I was dying to get a goal and shut them up. Eighty-five minutes left, and I was pleading, ‘Ya rab! Ya rab!’ They just kept cursing at me, louder and louder.”

It’s been 33 years since then, but those moments still set his heart pounding. They are etched into his conscious as if they happened only yesterday. Turk was emotional, even angry. He sat up in his seat and stuck out his chest, just like he had at the game between HaPo’el Tel Aviv and Beitar Jerusalem. It was a game that will never be forgotten.   

“Just 89 minutes to go. Then 90 minutes. Then we get a foul shot from 30 meters away. The goalie, Yossi Mizrahi, was in position, and Beitar made a wall of 10 players in front of him. I said to myself, ‘Ya rab! Ya rab! Let me shut them all up, just this once. I was practically in tears. The crowd was going wild. I ran toward the ball and kicked it as hard as I could. It soared toward the goal and entered between the goalposts. Goal! Goal!

"The game was over, and I was going crazy! I ran over to Gate 8 and shouted, ‘Bassam Shakaa, eh?’ I was standing there while they threw tomatoes and oranges at me, but I didn’t even duck. I stood my ground. I was going crazy, shouting, ‘Bassam Shakaa, eh?’ and they kept throwing things at me, but still I wouldn’t budge. I saw an orange flying at me, so I stuck out my chest so that it could hit me. I wasn’t afraid. I was standing up to them. They could throw cement blocks at me, but I still wouldn’t have moved. It was one of those games where I let everything out, and I mean everything!”

The Babai restaurant serves a Middle Eastern menu, and tiny plates of salads covered our table. But Turk barely touched the food. He was still pumped up with adrenaline from those pivotal moments on the soccer field. 

Turk was the first Muslim player to get a taste of the Beitar fans’ rage, but he was hardly the last. He has since retired, but the hatred remains. Now it is focused on two Muslim players from the Terek Grozny team in Chechnya, Zaur Sadayev and Dzhabrail Kadiyev, who were brought to the team by its owner Arkady Gaydamak and its manager Itzik Kornfein, despite vociferous protests by some of the fans. The hardcore fan base opposed to these players includes “La Familia,” an organization waging a very vocal and ugly campaign to keep Beitar “free of Muslims.”

“I admire Gaydamak and Kornfein for wanting to tear down the racist barrier,” says Turk. “True, they own Beitar Jerusalem, and it’s hard for me to say something good about anything to do with that team, but I still can’t help but respect them for their war against the fans.”

Have you met with the Muslims playing for Beitar? Have you considered reassuring them? 

“Of course. I’d love to encourage them. I’d tell them to act like me.” 

Like you?

“Listen, I showed up for my first practice with HaPo’el Tel Aviv straight from the beach. About ten minutes into the practice, the coach, Ze’ev Segal, came over to me and said, ‘Listen, if you work hard and listen to your coaches, but most of all, if you remain a decent man, you will be a star. You’ll make it all the way to the national team. They’ll write about you in the newspaper. The world will hear about you yet.’ That whole time I kept saying to myself, ‘What’s the matter with this guy? He’s nuts!’ I actually showed up to practice with torn shoes.” 

Working hard, listening to coaches and behaving decently may be enough for any other player, but not for Rifaat Turk, not in Israel in the late '60s and early '70s. That’s why the coach threw another piece of advice at the boy from Jaffa, hoping that he would take it in: “I want you to know one important rule,” he said. “We live in a racist country. They’ll curse you, your mother and your sister. They’ll spit at you. You have to be smart about it and know how to deal with it. If you are smart, you’ll survive. If you’re not smart about it, you can take everything I told you earlier and chuck it into the sea.” 

Were you able to control yourself?

“Before my first game in Herzliya, the newspaper headline read, ‘Arab Player Named Hassan Arafat Joins HaPo’El Tel Aviv.' I have no idea where they came up with that name. Rifaat somehow became Arafat. And you know, Arafat wasn’t especially popular with the Israeli public in the 1970s. We were once playing in the national-cup finals in Ramle, and I suddenly heard the coach of the other team say to one of his players, ‘Moshe, Moshe, get off the bench. See that black guy over there? Have a go at him and break his leg.’” 

What happened in the end?

“I marked him down in my target roster. I have ‘drill 17,’ based on the number on my shirt. He got what he deserved and left the game with a broken leg. We won in the end, one-nothing.”

Rifaat Turk was born in Jaffa in September 1954. His father was a fisherman, while his mother raised the family’s eight children. “We would have food one day and then go a month with nothing. I used to go barefoot until I was twelve, because the pair they somehow bought me, I tore playing soccer. 

“I went to the Hasan Arfa school, not too far from here. The teachers and principals were Jews, and they didn’t care whether we learned anything or went to the beach. There were 32 of us in my class. Of these, eight never made it to age 25. They all died of drug overdoses. Other people in my class spent time in prison. Only one other person and I came out normal. I’ve been taking care of my body since I was born. God gave us our bodies to watch over them. All my friends wanted to get me to try drugs, but I would never listen to them. If only they had invested in us, even just a little, everything would have been different.”

In July 1976, Turk became the first Arab-Israeli soccer player to appear in an international match, wearing the uniform of Israel’s national team. Coach David Schweitzer selected him to be a part of the Israeli delegation to the Montreal Olympics. Turk played 33 games in the team uniform and scored three goals.

In the 1980-1981 season, HaPo’el Tel Aviv won the national championship with Rifaat playing midfield, along with Eli Cohen and Moshe Sinai. In that season he scored his most famous goal of all, known as the “Rifaat missile.” It was a penalty kick, 45 meters from the goal, at Beitar Jerusalem’s legendary YMCA Stadium, its home field before Teddy Stadium was built. 

Tell me about what happened there.

It was a penalty kick, a foul from midfield.” Turk takes great pleasure recalling the moment. "The coach said, ‘Leave the ball for someone else,’ but I could feel it in my bones. Then boom! I got it between the goalposts. Even today, kids still stop me and ask about that goal. ‘Hey, you weren’t even born then!’ I say, but they tell me, ‘We saw it on Youtube.’”

As a huge fan of HaPo’el Tel Aviv, aren’t you afraid to show up at the team’s games in Teddy Stadium?

"I have no problem at all going to Teddy Stadium. I’m not afraid of anyone. With all due respect, I go there with a group of friends, and if anyone wants to start up with us, bring it on. Let them try. In any event, I scored more goals against Beitar Jerusalem than any other team. You can see why.”

At the end of our talk, Turk gives me a personal tour of Jaffa, the city of his birth. Over the years it has become a real-estate hotspot for people with money who buy up land and homes in all the prestigious seafront projects. Turk claims that Jaffa is being stolen from the local population, which is gradually pushed out to make room for the top 0.1%. But we’ll save that story for another day.

Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, and has reported on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work. He has published two books: Eyeless in Gaza (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and Getting to Know Hamas (2012).

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