Cultural impact of prestigious soccer game goes far beyond the pitch

While on-the-field efforts were truly something to remember, the off-the-field organizational work to make this event possible, is another story to tell.

Soccer Football - International Friendly - Argentina v Uruguay - Bloomfield Stadium, Tel Aviv, Israel - November 18, 2019 Argentina's Sergio Aguero celebrates scoring their first goal (photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
Soccer Football - International Friendly - Argentina v Uruguay - Bloomfield Stadium, Tel Aviv, Israel - November 18, 2019 Argentina's Sergio Aguero celebrates scoring their first goal
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
Lionel Messi and Argentina came to Israel for a relatively insignificant international friendly against Uruguay, but in fact their trip was quite meaningful.
While on-the-field efforts were truly something to remember, the off-the-field organizational work to make this event possible, is another story to tell.
The trip itself was facilitated by the funding of Canadian-Israeli philanthropist Sylvan Adams and the organizational efforts of the Comtec-group – the same two-headed team who brought the Giro d’Italia to Israel.
Before that event took place, Adams estimated that nearly 95% of Israeli’s never even heard of the Giro before, and yet it garnered a million Israelis to flock to the streets on the world stage to come out and cheer on the race, including Adams’s Israel Cycling Academy Team – and the belief is that these types of occurrences are a great way bring Israelis together from all different flocks of life, to enjoy a sporting event and showcase what Israel is really like to the wider public.
“The reason for doing this event, is that it fits schematically with the other projects that I’m doing, and have done and want to continue to do, which is to expose what I call ‘normal Israel,’” Adams told The Jerusalem Post.
“To bring massive audiences of apolitical people, you know these are sports fans we are appealing to, they don’t care about politics, they don’t really know Israel, but they probably have a negative impression of Israel's small dimensions of media coverage. So, I’d like to say, when I meet first-time visitors of Israel, they are almost universally surprised and impressed.” Adams added that, these first-time visitors “then see, the bustling tech industry, diversity, openness, freedom, tolerance democracy, and most importantly that it’s safe.
“I think that this is a beautiful message, a beautiful way of showing the country to people who don’t have a dog in this fight, who are not political and I really believe is shared throughout the massive majority of people [living in this county].”
While Adams’s thoughts are not unfounded, the game itself was at risk of cancellation due to the clash between Hamas and Israel early last week. After Israel assassinated a priority target of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Bahaa Abu al-Ataa, Hamas returned the favor with multiple days and nights of rocket barrages from the Gaza coastal-enclave – leaving the match’s status in doubt as rumors flied across the country that the teams will no longer be coming to Israel after the terrorist scare.
However, as the conflict calmed over the course of the week and a ceasefire was achieved, both teams happily made their way to Tel Aviv to compete in what might be said as the most prestigious soccer match the State of Israel has ever been graced - garnering over 20,000 fans into Bloomfield Stadium, with tickets selling out within hours of first sale.
“Whether it’s playing in South America or in other places, we were always happy to play in this match, but things happened,” said Uruguayan head coach Óscar Tabárez in the post-game press conference. “Last Tuesday, you know what happened, I don't like to talk about it too much because other than being people we have our own opinions, but when we come as a group to play a soccer match we're professionals completing our promise. The most important was coming here to complete our goals, preparing for the World Cup qualifiers.”
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni shared similar sentiments, explaining that due to the rocket barrages and short notice of the game’s continuation, the team did not have time to explore Tel Aviv or the country itself, but added that the pitch was great and everyone they met treated them well.
While the teams did not have much time to spend in Israel, they certainly made their mark in the short period they had.
On Monday, Messi, Sergio Aguero, Scaloni and the rest of the Argentinean national team made an appearance at Wolfson Hospital, located just down the street from Bloomfield, to participate in the “Save A Child’s Heart” program, which is also funded by Adams’s foundation – which brings children to Israel from all across the world for life-saving heart surgeries and has treated more than 5,000 children from 62 countries.
Adams brought a group of children program participants with him hailing from Senegal, Ethiopia and Zanzibar to meet and chat with the famed Argentinian squad at the hospital. The foundation works alongside doctors in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to bring these children to Israel to perform this life-saving heart surgery – and those who had the chance to meet the Argentinian players, each received signed soccer balls and Argentina jerseys penned by the players themselves.
“The Jewish People works to save people from across the world. I am proud to lead, alongside the best Israeli medical professionals, this extraordinary project of life-saving cardiac surgery,” Adams said.
In addition to saving lives, Adams is also changing the lives of Israeli and Palestinian children across Israel and the West Bank - through many various charities and organizational efforts, not only aimed at improving their lives but promoting togetherness in 'normal Israel.'
Adams himself not only subsidized the expenses to make sure ticket costs stayed manageable for everyone who wanted to witness the match first-hand, he also funded and reserved a couple of  thousand tickets which he had given away to all kinds of different organizations for children specifically – from hospitals to underprivileged families.
“We wanted to give away free tickets to what I believe are worthy recipients and we will have Jewish kids, Christian kids, Muslim kids – everybody in Israel loves soccer – so we have different groups of kids that we have given away tickets to and I’m very proud of that,” said Adams.
“We were approached and offered to bring 200 Israeli and Palestinian kids to be a part of the audience, giving them the opportunity to really make their dreams come true and see the big stars,” said Tami Hay-Sagiv, the director of education for the Peres Center for Peace. “The game is about bringing a message of peace and how sports can bring people together, just like we have done for the last 18 years as a part of our sports program.”
Hay-Sagiv, explained that Adams connected with the center through a mutual friend in Ayelet Frish, a strategic advisor who works with Adams personally and is familiar with the bridge-building work the educational facility does within the population of Israel.
"I don’t go anywhere without Ayelet. Ayelet is brilliant,” Adams told the Post.
The Peres Center itself, wholly believes in the values Adams shared with the Post. Their main endeavor is to educate groups of Palestinians and Israelis together to find harmony amongst one another through regular interactions, education as well as sports themselves.
“Many people are cynical about the power of sports and the use of sports in general for promoting social change, specifically peace building – what we do on a daily basis, without all the glamour and attention, it is important to me that people to understand the impact that tool has on sparking this type of change – if you use it wisely and believe in the educational potential of it,” Hay-Sagiv added.
Hay-Sagiv, explained that these long-term peace initiatives are very successful for those who participate in the programs. The Jerusalem Post had the opportunity to interview some of the program’s young participants and they spoke about how excited they were and how their lives have changed since partnering with the Peres Center.
Speaking to kids from all different back-grounds, many of the children expressed their love for the program, appreciating the opportunity to meet new friends from all around the country. The program shows firsthand how kids from different religious and geographical backgrounds can become unlikely friends, as long as they are in a place that nurtures these blossoming relationships - many of the children added that they always make sure to keep in touch during the week with their friendly rivals over the phone, even if just for a friendly hello.
“I have heard the kids are excited [to go to the match], I don’t really believe that most of them really understand what they are going to experience at the game tonight, with all the big stars playing in the game today, because none of these kids have had the opportunity to attend a game of this [magnitude] before.”
Many of these kids, being their first soccer match were astounded to see the stadium and to root on their favorite players, alongside their Israeli and Palestinian brethren and looked forward to spending some quality time around the soccer pitch together, talking about soccer and forgetting about the outside world, even if just for a moment.
As Adams uses his wealth to influence public opinion about Israel, Argentina vs Uruguay won’t be the last chapter of his book, but so far it’s the best one.
“We Israelis want to be loved by the world, and this brings us together,” Adams concluded.