Mark Paintsil couldn't believe it was happening to him. The 20-year-old Ghanaian whose brother, John Paintsil, played for the Israeli premiere soccer league for several years during the last decade was sitting in Givon prison for illegally staying in Israel,
while his brother was about to take the field in Johannesburg's Soccer City and participate in the deciding match between Ghana and Germany.
"I arrived to Israel at the age of 18 because I heard from my brother that people here are very friendly and good; I also wanted to play soccer here," said the young Ghanaian in a conversation with Ynet.
"One of the reasons my brother loved being in Israel so much and had a flag of the country at home was because of the treatment he received. I didn't think I would find myself sitting in prison. I haven't done anything wrong," he lamented.
John Paintsil is remembered as one of the most popular foreign players in Israel, making many friends during his stay in the Jewish State. He performed numerous times on the local soccer fields between 2000 and 2006, first for Maccabi Tel Aviv club, and later for its municipal rival Hapoel.
Paintsil's special bond with Israel was unusually expressed during the previous World Cup, when he celebrated his team's victory over the Czechs by running across the field while waving an Israeli flag.
His surprising gesture was subject to a lot of criticism: The Egyptian press claimed
Paintsil was a Mossad agent, while Iran, according to Paintsil, threatened his life.
Paintsil (L) celebrating victory at 2006 World Cup (Photo: AFP)
Back in his home country, the player was slammed for exhibiting patriotism for another country, but this did not stop him from donning his national uniform in many more matches, including the current Tournament in South Africa.
The younger Paintsil claimed his family had to pay a heavy price for his brother's patriotic gesture, and was eventually forced to move to London, where John is currently playing for the Fulham Club.
Painitsil said the situation was so grave that his family was unable to visit Ghana from fear they would be harmed.
"I came to Israel with my sister. She later went back to Ghana, but was harassed. There is no way I can go back there," he added.
Paintsil decided to stay in Israel and began training for an Israeli soccer club. The team tried to get him a work visa as a foreign player, but then it turned out his tourist visa was expired and he was considered by authorities as an illegal alien.
Immigration authorities told the team management that in order to properly obtain a visa, Paintsil would have to first return to Ghana, and come back to Israel under the team's sponsorship.
However, Paintfil explained, "I cannot return to Ghana because I truly fear for my life. My sister, after returning to Ghana, joined my brother and parents in London immediately, and now I am in prison and there is nothing I can do."
Paintsil noted he had submitted a request for asylum in Israel. "I would really want to stay in Israel and play soccer here, because I truly love this country. I don't understand why I was arrested. The team I played for really liked me, and I also made friends here; but they were unable to sort out my legal documents."
A week and a half ago Paintfil received a visit in prison from an activist at the Hotline for Migrant Workers. "He seems like a person who loves life, and tries to smile all the time," the activist told Ynet. "I got the impression he really loves Israel. It's even a little strange to meet a guy from Ghana who came here and is already in love with the country."
The Hotline stated that "during one of our routine visits to Givon Prison, Mark Paintsil approached the activists and asked for assistance. In a conversation with him we found out he petitioned for asylum in Israel because of the harassment he received in Ghana ever since his famous brother waved the Israeli flag in the World Cup.
"Mark told us that during his proceedings he was injured, and was unable to attend his hearing – and therefore was arrested. We urge the Israeli authorities to allow him to go through his asylum proceedings outside of the prison walls," they said.
The Population, Immigration and Border Authority said in response: "Mr. Mark Paintsil entered Israel as a tourist and overstayed his visa in violation of the law. Paintsil was arrested based on the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, and only after his arrest he appealed for political asylum. Therefore, Mr. Paintsil was not detained after filing for asylum, and we are waiting for his case to be reviewed."