By Ofer Ronen-Abels
When they kick off against Albania's KS Partizani in the first leg of their UEFA Cup second qualifying round tie in Tel-Aviv today, Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin FC will become the first Arab side to play in a European competition. Despite this lofty achievement, however, the club have never been too proud to beg.
When Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon phoned club chairman Ma'azen Ghnaim to congratulate Sakhnin following the 4-1 State Cup final win against Hapoel Haifa FC that booked their place in Europe, the shrewd official made sure that he enlisted Sharon's help in his plans to build a new stadium for the club.
Moments after the cup final victory, which brought 25,000 supporters to the Ramat Gan stadium, Ghnaim said: "This club and these fans deserve a home stadium." As he spoke to Ghnaim, Sharon was persuaded to raise his initial promise of €800,000 of state money for the stadium project to €1.6m.
Due to the political situation in Israel, UEFA has ruled that all European games in the country must be played in Tel-Aviv. Thus, Sakhnin will be returning to the scene of their State Cup triumph to take on Partizani, although this time a more modest crowd of 10,000 will join them.
"I can't feel the fans' interest as much as I did towards the end of last season and the final," Sakhnin's Cameroonian defender Ernst Etchi told uefa.com. "It is understandable though as this will be our first official match and the domestic season is a fortnight away."
However, even if the game has not caught the public imagination quite like the State Cup showpiece, Sakhnin are hoping it can be a cause for celebration in Israel. Club spokesman Mondar Halaila said: "
We hope that Arabs and Jews will unite for 90 minutes and will keep their fingers crossed for us."
The team themselves are well aware of the importance of the occasion. "We have been preparing a long time for this historic moment," coach Eyal Lachman told uefa.com. "Over the past months we have spent a lot of time adjusting our team to the European style of play which is different to our domestic game."
Those adjustments have included replacing Congolese goalkeeper Commoko Cammara with Zimbabwean Energy Murambadoro, switching Polish midfield player Darius Yatzkevic for 26-year-old former SK Sturm Graz player Alain Masudi, and releasing chief goalscorers Rafi Cohen, Lior Asulin and Gabriel Lima.
In their place, Lachman has signed 28-year-old Nigerian striker Agoye Alumeide and Cleber Vieira Rodriguez, a 24-year-old Brazilian striker who played in Belgium last year. Those players should add some experience to a team which includes plenty of European greenhorns.
"I can sense tension and that is normal as it is the first European experience for a lot of my team-mates," said Etchi, who played four UEFA Champions League games for RC Lens. "The players are trying to show confidence and prove that they are not nervous, but I am sure that this is not the case. Just like it was with Lens, Sakhnin are the underdogs. I love these situations because this is when surprises can occur."
Another surprise is certainly what Ghnaim is after. "We set a standard last season by winning the State Cup and the UEFA Cup match is only a direct continuation of that," he said. "But we are hoping to really do something so that our achievement will be noted in the history books."
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