Israelis come in all different sizes, shapes, and colors.
Some live in the cities, others live in rural settlements.
Some are Jews, others are Arabs. Some are religious, others are secular. Some were born here, others in distant lands.
They all eke out their livings in different ways. They all have different levels of education. They all have different political orientations and different visions for the future of the state.
But when it comes to sports, Israelis of all stripes have always had two things in common: they all dreamed of witnessing the day when an Israeli soccer squad would beat Brazil and advance to the semifinals of a prestigious international tournament – and they all thought they never would.
But on Saturday, they did.
On Saturday, they witnessed Israel’s Under-20 National Team upset Brazil in the FIFA U20 World Cup in Argentina. On Saturday, what millions of people thought they would never live to see, they lived to see.
And as a result, on Thursday, Israel will take on Uruguay in the semifinals. The Under-20 World Football Championship – a seminal soccer event – is within Israel’s grasp.
“Israel beats Brazil; Israel is in the semifinals of the world championship!” one of the television announcers, Jonathan Cohen, screamed into his microphone on Saturday.
“You will tell of this night to your children, and they will tell it to your grandchildren,” he said, using words more suited, perhaps, to God’s splitting of the Red Sea, the Allied invasion of Normandy, and the IDF’s liberation of the Western Wall.
For some, however, this feat seemed nearly as improbable and momentous.
And for a moment – just a moment – it numbed the national pain over the death of three soldiers along the Egyptian border hours before.
For a moment – just a moment – it gave everyone in this divided land something to cheer about. Finally, consensus over something.
Israeli FIFA U20 World Cup success brought brief unity to a divided country
Israel beating Brazil to advance to the FIFA U20 World Cup semifinals is good. Everyone could agree on that – those pushing for judicial reform and those marching against it on the streets.
Israel has a knack for pulling together at two different times: in times of a security crisis, similar to what everyone experienced last month during Operation Shield and Arrow, and when Israeli athletes fare well.
When the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team beat CSKA Moscow in 1977 in the semifinals of the FIBA European Cup, and Tal Brody iconically said that this victory put Israel on the map, the nation went berserk – and then the team went on to take the championship.When Gal Fridman won Israel’s first gold medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics – in windsurfing, of all things – the country, during the Second Intifada, celebrated. And when Israel took not one but two gold medals in the last Olympics in Tokyo – in gymnastics – it was a cause for national joy.
So one should not have been too surprised that merely getting into the semifinals of the Under-20 World Cup would merit Team Israel congratulatory phone calls from both President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But if that’s what happens when the team wins a quarterfinal match, one wonders what to expect if they go on to beat Uruguay in the semifinals. Who, then, will be left to make that congratulatory call?
There is something charming about this over-the-top reaction to a junior national team’s success, just as there is something charming about the team itself.
The team’s charm stems from its youthful exuberance, spunk, supreme confidence, and the fact that it is made up of Jews and Arabs who cooperate on the field in a manner that should only be a model for cooperation in everyday life.
Of the three goals scored Saturday, one was by an east Jerusalem Arab, one by a Bedouin, and one by a Jew. And the Jew, Dor Turgeman, had written on a white wristband he wore during the game: “In memory of the victims of the attack.”
One of this country’s unheralded strengths is its resilient ability to carve out normalcy in an environment that is, well, not always normal; where the country often finds itself on the edge; where events – both internal and external – rock the land at frighteningly frequent intervals.
A premium, therefore, is placed on the trappings of normalcy, and there are few things as normal as sports.
Sports also provide a diversion from the challenges of everyday life. And since everyday life in Israel can be so challenging, when the national team – or even just one of the country’s sons or daughters – does well in sports, it’s a cause for celebration: “Look, we’re normal; we too can excel in sports, we too can make sports headlines the day’s top story.”
Sports also allow people to temporarily forget their differences and rally around something they have in common: their team.
A month ago, most Israelis were unaware of this team of under-20 footballers and had never heard of Coach Ofir Haim or the stars Turgeman, Tomer Tzarfatii, Hamza Shibli, and Anan Khalailii. Today, much of the nation will pray for their success on the pitch. Whatever the outcome, these young soccer players have already succeeded in doing something even more difficult than winning FIFA’s Under-20 World Cup: unite, if just for the duration of the 90-plus-minute match, a sadly divided nation.