The World Cup

Russia still faces tension with the West over a range of issues, including its military intervention in Ukraine and Syria.

June 14, 2018 21:46
3 minute read.
The World Cup

Colombia's national soccer coach Jose Pekerman applauds as he walks past his players during the farewell ahead of the upcoming FIFA World Cup Russia 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/HENRY ROMERO)

The 2018 FIFA World Cup, which kicked off in Russia on Thursday evening, is the biggest, most expensive and most-watched sporting event of the year.

According to football folklore, there are no wars during the World Cup, which this year extends through July 15, because fans are too busy watching soccer on TV. Let’s hope that this is the case, especially in the Middle East! There are 32 teams competing for the coveted cup. Unfortunately, Israel is not one of them.

After being deprived of a warm-up friendly match against Argentina in Jerusalem on June 9 – which was canceled by Argentina following death threats against Lionel Messi and his squad – thousands of Israelis have flown to Russia for the games, and hundreds of thousands will watch them on the Public Broadcasting Corporation’s KAN 11.

FIFA is to be lauded for announcing on Wednesday that it will take disciplinary steps against Palestinian Football Association head Jibril Rajoub for threatening Messi and urging fans to burn pictures and shirts with his image.

In addition, for the first time, millions of Arabs in Israel’s neighboring countries (as well as the Palestinian Authority) will be watching the World Cup on KAN, which purchased the broadcasting rights, reportedly for almost $8 million. This means that Israeli television is offering free coverage to residents of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories who would normally have to pay an exorbitant $45 an hour to Qatar’s beIN Sports.

As reported by The Jerusalem Post’s Eytan Halon, the Foreign Ministry’s Arabic-language Facebook page announced that matches will be broadcast via satellite in Arabic for free, thereby breaking the Qatari monopoly on World Cup coverage in Arabic that has proved unaffordable for many in the Middle East. This is truly a revolution in Israel-Arab ties.

Israel, it should be recalled, qualified for the World Cup finals only once, in 1970. Ironically, it advanced through the qualifying rounds because of a bye, when North Korea was disqualified for refusing to play in Israel, and by winning a match against Australia.

Sadly, it came in last in Group 2, and in 1974, was kicked out of the Asian Football Confederation amid political pressure from its Arab neighbors and transferred to the tougher European division. But although there are no Israelis in the World Cup, Israeli fans can root for two soccer stars who play for clubs in Israel: Hapoel Beersheba midfielder John Ogu, who plays for Nigeria, and Predrag Rajkovic, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s goalkeeper, who plays for Serbia.

Still, many Israelis will be supporting one of the dozen favorites – Spain, Brazil, Germany, France, Belgium, Uruguay, Argentina, Portugal, England, Poland, Mexico and Colombia – and may closely following other teams from the Middle East: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Iran. This is an opportunity to put political differences aside and enjoy the sporting spirit of soccer, the world’s most-popular sport.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, the host of this year’s World Cup, attended the opening game at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Before the competition began, Putin pointedly thanked FIFA for keeping politics out of sport. “I would like to make a special note of FIFA’s adherence to the principle of ‘sports out of politics.’ Russia has always supported this approach,” Putin said in an address to the world soccer governing body.

Russia still faces tension with the West over a range of issues, including its military intervention in Ukraine and Syria; support for Iran; alleged meddling in elections abroad; the poisoning of a former spy and his daughter in England; and its treatment of homosexuals. But despite international calls to boycott the competition, it seems to be going ahead at full steam. This is the way it should be – politics should not be allowed to taint international sporting events.

The Singapore summit on Tuesday between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un injected a new spirit of hope for world peace, which will hopefully permeate the festive atmosphere of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. We wish Russia good luck in hosting a successful sporting competition and can only hope that no international conflicts break out in the next month to harm the harmony. To Israel’s Arab neighbors: We urge you to watch the World Cup (locally called the Mondial) on Israeli television. To everyone else we say: Keep the peace, enjoy the games and may the best team win.

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