Historic Rugby Game a Beacon of Hope
Israel and the UAE break barriers and bread in Inaugural Event
By Ilan Preskovsky
History was made on Friday 19 March 2021 when the Israeli and United Arab Emirates rugby teams competed in Dubai in the inaugural matches of the Abraham Accord Friendship Cup. Named, of course, after the Abraham Accords signed last year, an agreement that normalised relations between the two countries, it was the first ever sporting event held between the UAE and Israel - one that will hopefully be a harbinger of other cultural collaborations to come between Israel and one of its multiple Arab neighbours.
Rugby may not be a major national sport in either Israel or the UAE, but there’s something particularly poignant about the way in which this historic milestone was reached, not in a dramatic, dazzling way, where a major football event between two all-star sides might have been the case, rather, it was, in essence, a modest, friendly match between two teams that are relative lightweights in the sport.
To drive that point home, after the Israeli side won the first match 33-0, the two teams followed it up with a second game that intermingled players from both sides into ‘white’ and ‘blue’ teams, with the former winning by a far smaller margin of 50 to 40. This second friendly-game provided Emiratis and Israelis, Arabs and Jews, a chance not just to compete against one another, but to play with each other on the same teams. Keeping this sense of camaraderie going, the Emirati team joined their Israeli counterparts for a shabbat dinner that evening.
The whole event was largely organised by the coaches of their respective teams: famed New Zealand rugby legend, Apollo Perelini, for the Emirati team and South Africa’s own Kevin Musikanth for the Israeli side. As Musikanth recalls, “I reached out to him [Apollo] directly after the Abraham Accord was signed and once we started engaging, we clicked instantly. He was very supportive and he pushed from his side as I pushed from the Israeli side to make it happen. After four months or so, we managed to get it over the line.”
Right through the months preceding this historic match, the Israeli squad was hard at training – including a trip to South Africa for a rugby boot camp with the Springboks. Navigating their way through the height of the COVID- 19 pandemic, the team arrived in Dubai to a warm welcome that carried into and over the actual event.
Michal Divon, an Israeli-American journalist and TV host working as a Senior Editor and Producer for the Khaleej Times, was there, on the ground, to cover the match and the shabbat dinner. She recalls just how significant the whole day felt:
“What’s amazing about being a spectator of such an event is that you’re witnessing people meet the so- called ‘other’ for the first time - a group of people, a nationality, to whom they may previously only have been exposed as stereotypes or via disinformation - and finally, they’re meeting each other as human beings.”
She notes, in particular, how sport is, “probably the most natural platform for cross-cultural bridge-building. It’s not political, it knows no boundaries and all the athletes tend to come with the same values of hard work, camaraderie and being a team player. We see it in Israel with sports teams led by the Peres Centre for Peace, where Arab and Jewish players come together for the first time and connect in such a natural way. It’s a very natural place to form these very authentic bonds.”
This was clearly visible as a group of Emiratis and Israelis met for the first time on the field. “There’s something incredibly powerful about [members of different nationalities and cultures] spending an intensive few days together. There’s something impactful and transformational about these experiences because not only did they play together, they also went on to socialise together.”
Musikanth clearly echoes Divon’s views on the importance of this once-off (for now) tournament, stressing especially the second match, where Arabs and Jews played with, rather than against, one another. Says Musikanth, “It was always my dream to have a situation where both Jews and Arabs would play on the same team. This was fully supported from the get-go by Apollo and the UAE Rugby Federation. We made special commemorative blue-and-white jerseys [with the words] Peace, Inshallah and Shalom written on them in their respective languages.”
He also stresses how important it is that this inaugural event wasn’t just something that was initiated by the coaches or any other ‘higher-ups’, but by the players themselves: “More impressive was that we left this to the players. This must be an historic first in any context. We selected two teams and allowed the players just to get on with it. It was incredible to see the boys interacting and being able to pull together [some] incredible rugby - as if they had played together for years. It was really a special and iconic moment. So much can be achieved through sport.”
The Abraham Accord Friendship Cup is hopefully only the beginning though. “We are making this an annual event and it would be great to have more countries join in and make more of a formal competition in the years to come,” Musikanth explains.
Recent developments have also presented Musikanth with a new challenge to take Israel Rugby to the next level. The Rugby Europe Super Cup is a newly established competition to be featured annually and will comprise countries that are not part of the ‘Six-Nations’. Musikanth has just been elected the Director of Rugby and Head Coach for the Tel Aviv Heat, the Israeli club that will be competing in the inaugural tournament in May 2022.
The new ties between Israel and the UAE remain strong despite emotions flaring throughout the Middle East after the latest war in Gaza. Indeed, Divon just recently covered the opening of the first Israeli Embassy in the Gulf States in Abu Dhabi by then Minister, Yair Lapid. She does, however, take pains to stress the newness of these ties and just why it is so crucial that events like the Abraham Accord Friendship Cup continue to occur. “It’s still the beginning and it is the intention that is so powerful; the intention really to connect on various levels, from the ground up, with everyday people, rather than just as a political decision.”
“It is still just the beginning,” she continues, “people are meeting for the first time. You have to allow for space and the patience to grow and nurture these relationships. I’m very excited to see where things are going to go and how partnerships and relations are going to expand. I see plenty of excitement on both sides.”
Musikanth emphatically agrees on the power of sport as a catalyst as much as any other to develop and help nurture these relations. “I think sport is the one thing in the world where people are able play against each other and with each other, creating bonds and friendships that far supersede any other form of interaction.”
And, with the way this ‘simple’ but monumental game of rugby went, it’s hard to disagree.
Ilan Preskovsky is a freelance journalist