The World Cup: Who's popular and who's not in Israel

Fans are not going to the bars to watch Israel play, as the country has failed to qualify for the World Cup since 1970.

June 27, 2018 16:13
3 minute read.
The World Cup: Who's popular and who's not in Israel

England's Harry Kane celebrates with Jordan Henderson after scoring their second goal against Panama, June 24, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA)


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It is 3:00 p.m. on a Sunday—the first day of the work week in Israel—but bars in Jerusalem’s city center are crowded with soccer fans huddled around television screens.

Mike’s Place, popular among Americans, is catering to some 40 fans during the match between England and Panama. Udi Kaniel, the owner of the bar, told The Media Line that the venue regularly attracts a mix of Israelis and foreigners.

“People come to watch the European teams like Portugal and England, because they have the famous players people want to see,” said Kaniel.

Fans are not going to the bars to watch Israel play, as the country has failed to qualify for the World Cup since 1970—its lone appearance in the tournament. Nevertheless, this year’s competition saw a record four Middle East teams qualify to play in Russia.

“People do come to watch some of these regional teams, but they mostly come to watch teams from Europe or South America,” Kaniel noted.

In addition to its live television coverage, Israel's Kan 11 public broadcaster is providing a free online streaming service to allow more people to watch the games. Kan 11 provided The Media Line with viewership ratings of matches already played.

Brazil’s contest against Switzerland attracted an average of 635,000 television viewers during the 90-minute match—the most-watched game thus far with the equivalent of about 8 percent of the total population tuning in. Argentina versus Croatia came in second with 620,000, followed by Spain against Portugal with 602,000 average viewers.

The opening match of the World Cup between Russia and Saudi Arabia had the most online viewers with 96,487.

Brazil versus Costa Rica followed closely with 96,198, while Mexico and Germany’s match had 94,481 online viewers.

Nine out of the 12 countries whose games drew the highest viewership are located in Europe or South America.
Excluding Russia—the host country receives automatic entry into the World Cup—the lowest-ranked  team from this elite group is twentieth-best in the world, according to FIFA. Iran is the highest-ranked Middle East team—at 37th—in this year’s World Cup.

The scheduling of the matches likely influences viewership ratings, Yuval Fisher, a data analyst for Kan 11, told The Media Line. “There were games where Russia played at 3:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m., and 9:00 p.m. But, I still think [Russia] tried to move its matches to the 9:00 p.m. [prime time] time slot,” he said.

Zolli’s Pub is also located in central Jerusalem. While it attracts all kinds of customers, on Sunday it was filled mostly with Israelis enjoying shisha—a hookah found predominantly in the region—with their drinks.

David Hamger, a bartender at the pub, agrees with Kaniel from Mike’s Place that the popularity of soccer leagues in Europe, including the English Premier League and Germany's Bundesliga, contributes to certain World Cup teams garnering more attention from Israelis. According to the BBC and Transfermarkt, a German-based website featuring soccer news, the top 10 foreign countries from which Premier League players hail are all either European or South American. So too for the top six in the Bundesliga.

Hamger told The Media Line that there were other reasons Israeli fans opt to watch European teams play instead of their Middle Eastern neighbors. “We can watch Egypt play, because [Israel] has peace with them. We go to the Sinai Peninsula for travel. Morocco and Saudi Arabia are also okay, but we watch these teams mainly to see them lose,” he said, highlighting the intersection of politics and sport.

People watching a match in Zabotinski, another bar, explained some of the resentment.

“[Egypt's Mohamed] Salah said he doesn’t like Israel, so why should we watch his play?” Sahar Ohayon, a bartender at Zabotinski, asked rhetorically. He was referring to the star striker who plays for English club Liverpool and the Egypt's national team, which is in the World Cup. Salah refused to shake hands with Israeli players during a match in Tel Aviv in 2013 and also was accused of making antisemitic statements during the post-match conference.

“Honestly, I don’t think that these countries should even be playing,” said Ohayon.

The World Cup runs until July 15.

David Lee is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.

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