This week’s sports headlines in Israel have been taken up with the attack on Ali
Khatib, an Arab footballer from the Hapoel Haifa team, by two members of the
Maccabi Petah Tikva team following their match last Saturday. The brawl comes a
little over a week after hundreds of Beitar Jerusalem fans assaulted Arab
cleaning personnel at the capital’s Malha shopping center on Monday.
is in sharp contrast to the tranquility of the fascinating exhibition on the
topic of a Hundred Years of Football in Israel/Palestine which has recently
opened at the Eretz Yisrael Museum in North Tel Aviv. A combination of history,
politics, sociology and, not least, the sport itself, the exhibition has already
proved to be a major attraction for thousands of visitors, including many who
would not normally be seen entering a museum known for its depiction of the
regions’ history – both recent and ancient.
The exhibition highlights the
political nature of Israeli football (soccer) past and present. It describes the
origins of the game in the early years of the 20th century and the boost it
received from the British mandate authorities who organized many of the teams
around their military units, alongside the earliest Jewish and Arab teams which
were organized by the local populations.
It shows the tensions which
existed at various times between Jewish and Arab teams and the attempt to
organize a separate Arab league during the 1940s, which was subsequently
disbanded following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
of the more fascinating political parts of the exhibition concerns the deep
rivalries which existed between the Maccabi and the Hapoel teams, each of which
represented different social movements, and the way in which they combined
forces during the 1950s and 1960s to exclude, as far as possible, the teams
associated with the revisionist Beitar movement.
The exhibition depicts
the way in which sport in general, and football in particular, was used as a
means of portraying Israel on the world scene. The two most important
international events were probably the games played between Israel and the
Soviet Union in 1956, at which a crowd of over 80,000 including many Soviet Jews
flocked to see the Israeli team, and the appearance of Israel in its only World
Cup Finals to date, in Mexico in 1970, when the national team achieved an
honorable draw with the famous Italian team of the time.
And for those
football fans less interested in the social and political history of the game,
there is plenty of material relating to the country’s best known teams,
including pictures and videos, artifacts ranging from medals, trophies, players
shirts, magazines and club mementos, an attraction for nostalgic adult and
children supporters alike.
Israeli football has come a long way since
those early days of playing on sand dunes with makeshift goals. Following their
expulsion from the Asian competitions in the 1970s, and a brief spell during
which Israel was forced to play in the Oceania group along with Australia and
New Zealand, Israel has enjoyed full membership in the European regional
groupings for the past 20 years.
This has enabled Israeli teams to
participate in the prestigious European Champions League, the Europa League and
the national European Championship – the finals of which are to be played later
this summer, but alas without Israel who were unsuccessful in their attempts to
qualify for the finals. It has become common place for the best Israeli players
to be poached by European clubs, with a few, such as the late Avi Cohen, as well
as Ronny Rozenthal, Eyal Berkowitz and, most recently, Yossi Ben-Ayun, to play
for some of the leading clubs in the world’s No. 1 tournament, the English
Alas, despite the intense following of the local football
leagues here in Israel, Israeli teams have rarely progressed very far in the
European competitions, while their national team – with the single exception of
the 1970 World Cup in Mexico – have never qualified for the final stages of
these tournaments. While the rivalry between teams is as passionate, in some
cases even more passionate, than that in some of the leading soccer countries’,
this is not matched with a significant rise in the professional standards of the
players and their respective teams.
The level of the game in Israel is
akin to the level of the lower leagues in some of the leading European
countries, but that does not prevent the players from demanding exorbitant wage
packages and celebrity treatment, as though they were the Zionist version of a
David Beckham, a Lionel Messie or a Ronaldo.
MOST ISRAELIS have their
favorite foreign football team, while the hundreds of thousands of Olim
(immigrants) who came from European countries retain their strong loyalties and
affinities to those teams which they supported in the Diaspora.
country’s stadiums are below par compared to their European counterparts, and
the behavior of the local supporters – in an era in which violence and racism
have been strongly combatted throughout the European game – leaves much to be
The recent activities of the Beitar Jerusalem fans who
semi-lynched Arab workers in a Jerusalem shopping Mall, or the general negative
reception of Arab players by many Israeli supporters when they come on to the
pitch, is a sort of behavior which would no longer be tolerated in Europe and
which could easily lead to the teams being banned, or deducted points in the
league table, for their lack of sportsmanship (at best) and outright racist
behavior (at the worst).
And yet it is quite an experience to go to an
Israeli football game. To be present at an Israeli State Cup Final between
Beitar Jerusalem and Hapoel Tel Aviv is an experience never to be forgotten,
especially when your seats (on which no one ever sits but only stands) are in
the heart of the Beitar section.
To hear Israeli football fans scream
religious chants when their team scores a goal, or to see a large group of
supporters praying the evening or afternoon prayers on the terraces immediately
prior to the start of the game, is a unique Israeli-type experience never to be
The soccer exhibition is well worth a visit, even for those
who have no particular love for or interest in the game itself. It provides a
unique insight into the interface between sport, society, politics and
nationalism. But it does raise questions as to why a country, which has
succeeded in becoming an important international player in so many areas of
culture, business and the sciences, has miserably failed to match these
achievements in the arena of sports. The intensity of the football fanaticism in
Israel is not matched by an equal degree of success on the playing
So, if you are looking for something different to do with your
family during the Passover holiday week, it is worth taking some time out to
visit the football exhibition. It provides yet another insight into the diverse
and complex mosaic of what the State of Israel is all about.The writer
is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben Gurion
University. The views expressed are his alone.