Things always seem to get bleaker in the Middle East, as the dream of peace seem to get only more distant and unreal. Leaders find political advantage in maintaining and intensifying confrontation. Yet, the people still find ways to co-exist, even cooperate. Feel-good stories continue about grass-roots efforts that achieve some measure of understanding and reconciliation. They produce moments of hope, but they largely fly under the radar, and they are lost among the miasma of news about violence and provocation.
So, it comes as a welcome change to read a story of a Saudi billionaire and a famous Israeli working hand-in-hand in an entirely different venue, and gaining worldwide attention. Today's news brings this surprising development from the world of English soccer, where the new, Saudi Arabian owner of English Premier League bottom-dweller Portsmouth has brought in the former Israeli national team coach to rescue the fortunes of the team.
If you're not a fan, you might need a brief summary of events to know how we got to this point. After the 2007-08 season, Portsmouth lost their longtime miracle-worker coach, Harry Redknapp, who moved on to the brighter lights of London to coach Tottenham Hotspur. The team burned through 2 coaches last season, and barely avoided being relegated to the second division of English soccer. The bottom 3 teams of 18 get relegated each season, and such a blow costs the team a chance to share in the gobs of money that the EPL teams get because of their worldwide TV contracts. A relegated team faces the loss of over $100 million in revenue -- and the fans lose the opportunity to see their team play some of the best club teams in the world.
The team was sold, controversially, in May, to a reputedly wealthy businessman from the United Arab Emirates. The economic downturn, though, took a huge bite out of his fortune. As the team careened towards bankruptcy, the front office allowed all of the team's best players to leave for other teams. Portsmouth began this season with the worst start of any team in the history of the EPL, losing their first 7 games. Last week, the team won its first game, but also missed its first payroll. While several lower-division English teams have flirted with bankruptcy in recent years, it was shocking to see a Premier League side in that kind of financial trouble, given that the league is the wealthiest in the world.
So, the last 24 hours brought a flurry of news for fans of Portsmouth. First, came the report that Saudi billionaire Ali Al-Faraj was purchasing a 90% stake in the team. Good news, but not entirely surprising.
What was surprising was the announcement today that Al-Faraj was hiring Avram Grant to be the director of football for the team. This is the equivalent of being a general manager of an American sports team. While not the coach, Grant will be in charge of all player personnel decisions. Grant has some prior history with the team, having served in a similar post in 2006 -- but the move by a new Saudi owner to bring in the most famous Israeli coach is worth special comment.
Grant gained notoriety years ago, when he guided Israel to the brink of qualifying for a World Cup tournament for the first time. That performance got him his first job at Portsmouth. Then, he was hired to coach Chelsea, one of the wealthiest and most successful teams in the world. His hiring there was attributed to the long relationship he had with Chelsea's billionaire Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, who is Jewish. It is not so surprising when a Jewish billionaire hires an Israeli to try and win a championship for his team, but it gets my attention when a Saudi turns to this Israeli to help lift the team out of the relegation zone and turn around the financial fortunes of the team.
It strikes me as hopeful news -- and not just for Portsmouth fans.