Israel striker boycotts national team in hopes of getting citizenship

JERUSALEM: Toto Tamuz wants to be an Israeli citizen, and he’s going to withhold his soccer talents from the country’s national team until he becomes one.

Tamuz, who was raised in Israel and speaks fluent Hebrew, is the son of illegal Nigerian immigrants. But he has become famous in the Middle Eastern country because of his soccer skills, which have made him the top scorer in the Israeli league and a member of the national team.

The only thing the 18-year-old striker is missing is a passport.

“As someone who represents the country with pride, I’d like to get the same treatment from the country,” Tamuz said before meeting his lawyers, who are taking his case to the Israeli Supreme Court.

“I’m not willing to compromise on the basic issues. I want to be recognized as an Israeli, like everyone else.”

Tamuz, who has fought a lengthy and unsuccessful bureaucratic battle to win citizenship, had been able to represent Israel because of his temporary residency status. But that has expired, and he rejected a two-year extension offer because he wants citizenship.

The Beitar Jerusalem forward began his strike from the national team last week by skipping a friendly against Ukraine.

Israel’s hopes of qualifying for the 2008 European Championship — the team came within a point of reaching last year’s World Cup — could rest on the Supreme Court’s decision. No date has been set for the ruling.

Until just over a year ago, Tamuz was illegal. On Dec. 27, 2005, he was given the residency permit that allowed him to play on the national team. Tamuz does not have Nigerian citizenship and does not seek it.

The story of the black player raised in Israel has captivated the imagination of the country. His teammates and coaches have pleaded with authorities on his behalf and private petitions to grant him citizenship circulate on the Internet.

“He is a player with a lot of speed and power. He has the potential to reach Europe,” former Israel coach Shlomo Sharf said. “But regardless of whether he is a soccer player, he should get citizenship. He is Israeli. He’s been here almost his entire life and he knows no other country.”

Tamuz was 2 years old when he arrived in Israel from Nigeria with his biological parents.

His father, Clement Temile, played for a local soccer club, but when the family encountered financial difficulties, Tamuz was placed in the care of one of his dad’s Israeli teammates. Tamuz’s parents lingered in Israel for years, working illegally at odd jobs, before leaving.

His parents only attempted to renew contact following Tamuz’s rise through the ranks of Israeli soccer, but he has rejected the gestures.

When he was 8, Tamuz moved in with Orit Tamuz, a single Israeli woman whom he calls his mother. Though Tamuz declined to say exactly how he met the woman, she never formally adopted him but she raised him, put him through school and he took her family name.

Within a few years, Tamuz emerged as a huge soccer talent in the central Israeli city of Petah Tikva, and quickly moved into Israel’s top division.

Orit Tamuz declined to comment until the Supreme Court case is resolved.

Tamuz was Hapoel Petah Tikva’s leading scorer last year, finishing fifth in the league with 11 goals in his first season in the top league. He was also the star player on Israel’s under-19 and under-21 teams, leading the latter to a berth in this year’s European championship.

Now with Beitar Jerusalem, Israel’s most famous club, Tamuz has only gotten better. Last week, he scored two dazzling goals to help his first-place team beat three-time defending champion Maccabi Haifa. He leads the league with 10 goals.

With the national team, Tamuz scored a goal in a 4-1 win over visiting Andorra in September, and a month later in a European Championship qualifier he set up the equalizer in a 1-1 draw at Russia.

Israel, which is tied for third place in Group E with England, faces the English team on March 24, and Tamuz hopes his ordeal will be resolved by then.

“Playing against England would be one of the greatest moments of my life,” he said.

But that will depend on the Supreme Court. On Monday, Israel’s Interior Ministry rejected a final appeal from Tamuz.

“The fact that the plaintiff is a known and promising soccer player who played for the national team does not grant him privileges in attaining Israeli citizenship,” the government said.

Israel has tens of thousands of illegal African workers, many of whom are married and have children, and the government is wary of setting a precedent in the case of Tamuz.

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad declined to comment on the case, citing the pending court ruling. But regardless of the outcome, she said there was no chance Tamuz would be deported.

Tamuz’s lawyer, Maxim Lipkin, said the striker is being discriminated against because he is a celebrity.

“If he was anyone else, this would not be a problem,” Lipkin said.

Despite his unusual upbringing, Tamuz said the first time in his life where he felt “different” was when his friends were drafted into the army — which is compulsory for most Israeli citizens.

The court’s decision could give the country a new soldier, and a chance to qualify for Euro 2008.

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