In Hebrew the word "midfielder" translates as mediator, and since coming from the Palestinian West Bank league to sign for Hapoel Haifa FC, Ali Khatib has been a footballing middle man in both senses.
Khatib was born in Shfar'am, a predominantly Arab city in the north of Israel, and started his career with local side Hapoel Shfar'am FC. By 16, his talents had come to the attention of Hapoel Haifa, but after just one training session at senior level with the club, Khatib decided to move on to the improving West Bank Premier League team Jabal Al-Mukaber.
"It was the best option for me," said the 22-year-old, who won his first trophy with Jabal Al-Mukaber in 2010. "The Palestinian league is not just about football, it's about the fans. More spectators come to those games than the Israeli Premier League." Hapoel, meanwhile, made a dismal start to 2011/12, going eight games without a win until a new coach, former Israel midfielder Tal Banin, began to rescue the situation.
"In January I felt we needed to add new blood to the squad, and seeing a 20-second clip of Ali was enough for me – I wanted him," said Banin, who became the first Israeli to play in Serie A when he joined Brescia Calcio in 1997. "I wasn't deterred or bothered by the fact he would be the first player to come from Palestine to Israel. This story is about more than football, though."
Khatib had doubts yet four goals and an assist in his first seven matches under Banin have convinced the left-sided midfielder he made the right decision to rejoin Haifa. "I didn't believe I would have immediate success," he explained. "It was my dream and with dreams you always have to be careful. Believing in dreams too much can have devastating results."
Khatib's success has increased interest in the Palestinian top flight, and he feels further transfers to and from the Israeli league can only do good. "I believe in bringing people closer together through football," he said. "If more players from the Palestinian league come to Israel, it will help them personally and perhaps one day it will even help the relationship between the two nations."
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