Israel may be absent, but locals are still crazy for the World Cup

Israel only qualified once for the World Cup, in 1970, when it ended up tying Sweden 1-1.

Fans sitting in a bar in Jerusalem watching the first game of the 2018 World Cup (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Fans sitting in a bar in Jerusalem watching the first game of the 2018 World Cup
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
With last month’s surprise Eurovision win in over 41 other countries, Israel may now feel like it’s at the center of the world.
Yet, as usual, Israel is not competing in this year’s World Cup, which is taking place in Russia for the next two weeks.
Israel only qualified once for the World Cup, in 1970, when it ended up tying Sweden 1-1.
But that hasn’t dampened local enthusiasm, as spectators are packing into local bars across the country to watch the 32 teams compete in the World Cup – the most-watched global sporting event.
“There are a lot of Russian-Israelis rooting here,” said Jason Jungreis, owner of Mike’s Place on the Tel Aviv boardwalk, as he referred to the bar filled with fans festooned in national colors for Thursday night’s match between Russia and Saudi Arabia.
“I’m sure they’ll be very into the games, since they’re the host nation. And we’re showing the games all month long. It should be really, really fun,” he said.
An American-flavored sports bar, Mike’s Place is televising every World Cup game across its five venues in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Eilat – and to celebrate, they’re offering three-liter drafts of Carlsberg and Tuborg beer.
Unlike the last World Cup – which took place in the summer of 2014 during the Gaza War – several bar-owners expressed hope that neither Hamas rockets nor IDF reprisals will mar this year’s festivities.
On the other side of Tel Aviv, at Molly Bloom’s, owner Robert Segal offers spectators 5% off for every goal scored.
 “If a game is 3-2, you’ll get a 25% discount by the end,” Segal said. “For games up to 90 minutes – but your tab has to be open before half-time.”
Friday night is when Spain plays against Portugal, which will see superstar players Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi face off. That game should garner some of the largest crowds, Segal added.
When queried, many local fans expressed support for Argentina – despite the country’s cancellation of a planned match against Israel last week. The nixed Jerusalem game left thousands of bitterly disappointed fans.
“Many Israelis traditionally love Argentina and support Argentina in the World Cup,” said Pablo Duer, 25, who is originally from Argentina but now lives in Tel Aviv. “But because of the canceled game, many Israelis are going to support Brazil. So, I’m going to watch one or two Argentinian games with [Israeli-born] friends – for them to understand why we’re better than Brazil.”
Yahel Murvitz Lahav, 26, is a Technion med student who is juggling classes and long hours at the library with the games.
“A few friends and I, we made a bet. I’m hoping Belgium will win so I can win [the money]. But I’m actually rooting for Argentina, for my grandparents. On my Dad’s side, they made aliya from Argentina.”
Long-time British-Israeli resident Eddie Webber, 62, doesn’t only plan on putting business on hold – he may also forsake spousal obligations so he can watch all the games with his son.
“I told my woman for the World Cup that she’s not allowed to bother me,” Webber said, as his partner could be heard laughing on the telephone. “She thinks I’m joking. She’ll soon find out otherwise… Football is my life, it’s my religion.”
For Americans who now live in Israel, soccer may not be their number one sport. But Israel’s zest for the sport is now rubbing off on them.
 “I didn’t even plan to watch it at first because neither the US nor Israel qualified,” said Joel Strauss, 29.
“But my girlfriend is a French olah [immigrant], so I’ll be rooting for France from Tel Aviv. If I were to put their chances of winning on a scale of 1-to Paul Pogba’s hair [French player], I’d put it at a 5.”
For Israelis who want to watch the World Cup, most of the games are being broadcast by national broadcaster Kan. All of the matches can be streamed online for free.