His Israel team may have suffered an early exit from the UEFA European Under-21 Championship but for Taleb Twatha, this tournament has provided another memorable staging post on a journey that is already remarkable when you bear in mind where it began.
This is a 20-year-old, after all, from a world far removed from the one he now inhabits as a professional footballer. Defender Twatha is from a Bedouin family, born and brought up in Jisr az-Zarqa, a coastal town in the north of Israel which did not even have a football pitch when he was growing up.
"We have only 13,000 people in Jisr," the left-back explained to UEFA.com. "Jisr is a very poor town and when I was young there was no football there – not even a football field. I'm the youngest in my family. My eldest brother studies medicine in Italy. My other brother does the same but in Germany. My sister finished nursing school in Jordan. My father is the school principal and my mum is also a teacher. I'm the only one to have gone into professional sport."
That he ended up playing UEFA Champions League football for Maccabi Haifa FC aged just 17 was the result, he says, of a serendipitous moment seven years earlier – namely, a random phone call from a family friend. "I tried gymnastics, tennis, karate, but only in the fifth grade did I start playing football. I had some luck because I was in the car with my dad one day when a friend of his saw a newspaper ad about a football school and phoned him about it. I interrupted the call and told him I wanted to go. Just a year later I moved to Maccabi Haifa."
Even then, his strict father insisted he keep up his studies. "My father wanted me to learn as much as I could. In the sixth grade for my mid-year diploma I got a 7 out of 10 and he didn't let me play football for a month. He told me I must maintain an 8.5 average at all costs and that football could come after."
Such was Twatha's progress at Haifa that he was actually in their senior team while still at high school. Unable to attend lessons because of morning training sessions, his father and club president Yaakov Shahar arranged for teachers to give him private evening classes. They paid off, too. "I have a 9 average diploma," he said, adding with a smile: "I thank God that's behind me."
The name of Twatha's home town, Jisr az-Zarqa, translates as "bridge over the blue"; his own presence as a Bedouin in Israel's national side is a symbol of hope for youngsters in his community. "A year ago, an impressive new football pitch was inaugurated in Jisr," said Twatha, who has three senior caps. "A Maccabi Haifa football school was set up and many small kids from the village are now playing football."
Twatha is already grateful for all football has given him. "I can't really take it in that I was already part of the Champions League. I have Bayern Munich, Schalke and Croatia national team shirts at home," revealed the full-back, who was ever-present in Haifa's 2011/12 UEFA Europa League campaign. "I just hope I'll continue playing at this level for many years to come."
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