Borderline Views: Int'l football comes to Israel

In two days the UEFA Under 21 championship - the first major international soccer competition to take place in Israel - will commence.

By
June 3, 2013 22:17
THE ISRAEL UNDER-21 national team with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu before UEFA Championship.

Bibi with U-21 national team 370. (photo credit: Emil Salman/Courtesy)

 
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Two days to go and the first major international soccer competition ever to take place on Israeli soil will get underway.

The opening game of the UEFA Under 21 football championship will commence with the game between the host nation Israel and guest Norway on Wednesday, June 5 at the new Netanya stadium, to be followed the same evening by the game between England and Italy in Tel Aviv. The other four nations who have qualified for this year’s finals include four giants of world football – Germany, Russia, Spain and the Netherlands – ensuring a sporting feast for the quality-starved Israeli supporters of the local Israeli leagues.

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The eight teams will include many of the young and coming stars of European football, some of whom have already made their name on the world scene in the highly competitive weekly leagues of England, Spain, Italy and Germany. Some of the players may yet be relatively unknown, but they will be joined by those who have already made their mark in the senior leagues and who are already being traded for sums in excess of many millions of euros by such teams as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Tottenham, Ajax Amsterdam, Milan and Juventus – to name but the more famous of them. There will be plenty of scouts representing these teams in Israel to attend the games and to report back to their clubs concerning the future potential of these players – the stars of the future.

There were attempts by some politicized groups to prevent the tournament from taking place in Israel.

Pro-BDS groups demonstrated and organized petitions, urging the European football authorities to take the tournament elsewhere. But the message from UEFA was clear: Sport, like science, is not a political football.

Despite the obvious rivalries between supporters of different teams, sport brings people together across the political divides, enabling them – albeit for a relatively short period – to put the bitterness of intense ethnic conflict to the side. Michelle Platini, the former French football star and currently the head of UEFA, has made it clear that no political interference will be allowed to get in the way of holding the tournament in Israel.

If anything could have prevented the competition from taking place in Israel, it would have been the poor level of the necessary infrastructure. But the construction of modern stadiums in recent years, such as the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, the new Netanya stadium, and the upgrading of existing stadiums, such as Bloomfield and the national stadium in Ramat Gan, enabled Israel to pass the quality test – although there still remains much to improve if Israel is ever to compete for a more senior tournament in the future.



The Israeli authorities have been as good as their word. They promised relatively cheap tickets and, despite what has been an unprecedented demand for tickets for a relatively junior competition, have kept prices low, thus allowing Israeli citizens to turn up in large numbers and to enjoy the skills and thrills of the live game.

Not only have Israelis become ardent supporters of the European soccer leagues, thanks to the live television broadcasts which make it easier and cheaper for most Israelis to see games here than many of their European counterparts, but there has been a significant increase in the number of Israeli football players who have played for European clubs in recent years.

And even if they don’t quite have the star status of a Ronaldo, a Messi or a Bale, some of them – notably Yossi ben Ayoun and Tal ben Haim in the UK, and Dudu Aouate in Spain, building on past successes such as the late Avi Cohen (the pioneer of Israeli footballers, who played for Liverpool back in the 1970s), Roni “Rocket” Rosenthal and Eyal Berkovitz – are making their mark on the European football scene.

Jews and football actually have stronger links than just the more recent Israeli connection. A fascinating book by British sports journalist Anthony Clavane, entitled Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here? (2012) traces the links between European soccer and Jews throughout the 20th century. This year’s winners of the European Champions League, Bayern Munich, were known as a Jewish club until the rise of the Nazis, while many of the architects of the Central European dominance of football in the 1950s, such as Bella Guttman, were strongly identified with the Jewish community.

In today’s English premier league, many of the major clubs are now owned by Jewish entrepreneurs, such as the Glazer family at Manchester United, Joe Lewis and Daniel Levy at Tottenham, or Roman Abramovitch at Chelsea. Israeli manger Avram Grant has recently managed some of Europe’s top clubs, and while there may not be that many Jewish players outside of the Israeli stars, Clavane recognizes those that did make their mark at teams such as Leeds and Crystal Palace (recently promoted to the English premier league) and discusses how this was reflected in societal attitudes towards Jews in general, and Jews in sport in particular. And like it or not, whenever Israeli players are signed by European teams, the Jewish connection is always a topic of conversation among the fans.

The appearance of Israeli teams in European football tournaments has played a major role in bringing Israeli soccer to the attention of the game’s power brokers, resulting in the holding of this year’s tournament in Israel. That does not mean to say that there is not a lot to improve on in the Israeli soccer scene, from the financial management to the quality of the referees, and from the physical infrastructure of the stadiums to the behavior and attitudes of some of the fans.

Most important of all, Israel needs to instill a greater degree of professionalism in its own players, which will enable the Israel national team to build upon the evident individual skills of some of the players and to turn their teams into winners rather than perpetual “has beens.” At the end of the day the Israeli national team have only ever qualified once for a major world football tournament – the World Cup finals in Brazil back in 1970.

They have been close to qualifying on a number of occasions but always seem to manage to lose their concentration and throw the chance away at the last moment. There is no reason why, given the obvious skills of some of the Israeli players, they should not be able to move ahead and to become regular qualifiers in both the expanded 32-team World Cup and 24-team European Nations Cup.

We should play close attention to the professionalism and skills of the young players who will be representing their national teams here in Israel over the next two weeks. Israeli football managers and administrators should take note of the strict discipline demanded of even the most famous, or promising, stars. The team always comes before the individual, and no one player is ever allowed to be greater than the sum parts of the whole – even if he has new found celebrity status. Neither David Beckam, Ronaldo or Messi would be allowed to get away with some of the antics of Israeli players and this is a message which needs to be internalized in Israeli football if it is ever to achieve success on the European or world scene.

The competition is a chance for Israeli supporters of the “beautiful” game to go along and see the future stars of European football ply their trade here in Israel.

The chance won’t come around again so quickly. And who knows, with strong home support behind them, maybe the Israeli team will get beyond the initial group stage and make it as far as the final. Greater miracles have been known to happen in Israel.

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