One of the most moving moments in Samuele Giannetti’s 15-year career as vice president of the Roma Soccer Club for Youth’s Jerusalem branch happened in Rome itself, in a Jewish school in 2018.
Giannetti had arrived in the Italian capital with a group of junior high school students to participate in an international youth soccer tournament. It was late April, the eve of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), and Giannetti, who’d founded Roma’s soccer school in Jerusalem a decade earlier, assembled the Arab players on the team and advised them on what they could expect the following day.
“Speaking Arabic, I explained the Holocaust to them. They had never heard of it before; no one ever taught them. I told them we would visit the Jewish school, and at 10 a.m. would stand in silence for one minute during the siren. I told them they could wait outside the school if they preferred.”
The players said they had come as one team alongside their Jewish friends, and would join them wherever they went. On Yom HaShoah, Arabs and Jews stood side by side in solidarity with the victims.
“It was a surreal sight to see Palestinian Muslim children standing silently on Yom HaShoah,” Giannetti said. “I don’t know how that would be received back home, or if anyone would ever conceive of such a thing.”
A native of Rome, Giannetti says he was “born into soccer,” which remains his greatest passion to this day. The 50-year-old computer engineer made aliyah to Israel in 1990 and settled in Jerusalem. He and a group of Italian friends founded Roma’s first Middle Eastern fan club in 1998, titled Roma Club Gerusalemme. The idea of starting a soccer school emerged after he’d organized a number of tournaments for adults in the early 2000s in cooperation with the Italian Consulate.
Roma Club Jerusalem launched in 2008 with seven children and an Arab Israeli coach who had studied at Hebrew University. “The children were aged 8 and 9, and costs were covered by their parents and some donations.”
Today, the school boasts 145 students, ranging from 5-year-old kindergarteners to high school juniors in their late teens. They come from across the city, arriving at the field in the West Jerusalem neighborhood of Gonen wearing the official Roma uniform, their fancy socks knee-high. At times, Palestinian children from neighborhoods like Beit Hanina and Ras al-Amoud pass the ball to settlers from Kiryat Arba, a Jewish suburb of Hebron.
“Every child on the pitch feels at home here, regardless of whether they’re Jewish, Muslim, Christian or Druze. Their skin color makes no difference, nor does their gender,” Giannetti says, “We have fun together, and through the fun of soccer we teach children how to behave both on and off the field. We teach them to respect one another and their coaches and to reject verbal violence, which often leads to physical violence.”
Admittedly, an international football club may have an advantage in leveling the playing field, so to speak, between Jews and Arabs in a conflicted city like Jerusalem. Before the COVID pandemic, students traveled to Rome every year for tournaments and training. Four years ago, the partnership between the Roma club and its Jerusalem branch was formalized, and three trainers from Italy came to Israel to coach the children at a training camp, one of them former Brazilian world champion and retired Roma player Aldair Nascimento dos Santos.
Yet not all of the city’s groups are equally represented. At its peak, Arab children comprised 25% of the players. Two of the six coaches are Arabic speakers. But COVID, admits Giannetti, lowered the number of Arab players in the school, as well as the number of Ethiopians.
“The atmosphere of uncertainty doesn’t just affect us during wars, but also during the pandemic,” he said.
One of the Arab children who stopped coming during COVID but has now returned is eighth grader Elias Khouri. His father, Ibrahim, said he preferred a Jewish-run club to the Arab clubs in East Jerusalem, both because of the high professional level and the discipline instilled in the children.
“I find it important that Arab and Jewish children play together,” Khouri said. “I like it. My other son’s kindergarten is mixed and I prefer mixed environments.” The Christian Arab lawyer grew up in Haifa before relocating to Jerusalem, but was raised in an exclusively Arab environment.
“This school leads Elias on the right path towards the future,” he concluded.
Giannetti agrees that the soccer school gives hope for a brighter future for adolescents from working-class neighborhoods who would otherwise spend their time on the streets.
“There are Jewish children who live a kilometer away from here and would never meet Arab children living just hundreds of meters away from them,” he said. “Why is it so? That’s the situation here in Israel.”
But not everyone involved with Roma Club Gerusalemme is pleased with the educational and social goals articulated by Giannetti. Fabio Sonnino, a co-founder of the club and its president, said the Roma Club should stick to soccer and leave other agendas alone.
“This politicization bothers me,” said Sonnino. “I’m a Roma fan. When the ball hits the net and I shout like crazy, I don’t care about Arabs and Jews. I don’t care about politics.”
Sonnino, a Rome native who migrated to Israel in 1988, said that raising the Arab-Israeli issue in Italy is like “washing your dirty laundry in public.” Sonnino never played soccer himself; he suffers from cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. But like his friend Giannetti, he says soccer runs in his genes.
“I first came to the stadium at age 9 and can still remember every detail of the game: the final score and who scored the goal,” Sonnino reminisced. “True, I decided to move to Israel because I like it here, but I packed my love for the club in my suitcase and brought it with me.”
His late father, who became a fan in 1960, even donated money to save the team from bankruptcy.
“He gave about 60,000 lire, which at the time was equivalent to a full month’s salary,” Sonnino said.
But bitter antisemitic comments directed at him on Facebook by Italian soccer fans have made Sonnino skeptical that his activities in Jerusalem will ever engender change in his native country.
“I’ve been threatened, told we should be sent to the gas chambers, called a dirty Jew. I told Samuele [Giannetti]: ‘Don’t expose yourself too much, because they’ll hate you no matter what you do.’ I’m a Roma fan, not an educator.”
“When we present this [issue] in Italy, it’s always viewed through the Catholic lens of ‘let’s love each other, let’s turn the other cheek.’ I don’t like it.”
But whether or not youth Arab-Jewish soccer games make any sort of impact on Italians, the team’s visits to Italy do seem to shatter ignorance on both sides. Three years ago, the children visited the Mosque of Rome, the largest Muslim place of worship in the Western world. The Jewish children were astonished by what they saw, and bombarded Samuele Giannetti with questions.
“I told them I don’t have all the answers. It’s not like I enter a mosque every day,” said Giannetti, who has been teaching himself colloquial Arabic over the past six years. “‘But you have Muslim friends here. You can ask them and they’ll answer you. Some of them speak English, or we can translate,’” I said.
“That’s how connections are made. We have one language on the pitch: the language of sport. But it doesn’t end there.”
Elhanan Miller (@ElhananMiller) is a Jerusalem-based reporter specializing in the Arab world.