Fifty years on: Israel’s World Cup extravaganza

The historic moment mentioned on that front page in bold letters would probably be the goal made by Mordechai “Motaleh” Spiegler, a lead player on the Israeli team, in Toluca, Mexico.

MORDECHAI SPIEGLER gets his game on in 2014. (photo credit: FLASH90)
MORDECHAI SPIEGLER gets his game on in 2014.
(photo credit: FLASH90)
One day when the annals of Israeli sport history are compiled, there’s little doubt about which event will appear on the first page. In June of 1970, Israel participated in the FIFA World Cup soccer competition for the first time ever.
The historic moment mentioned on that front page in bold letters would probably be the goal made by Mordechai “Motaleh” Spiegler, a lead player on the Israeli team, in Toluca, Mexico.
On June 7, 1970, the Israeli soccer team was scheduled to play against Sweden’s rock-solid team. In the 57th minute of the game, with Sweden leading 1-0, Nehemia Ben-Avraham, the legendary Israeli sports announcer, described the famous moment, saying the following: “Spiegel is dribbling the ball… he’s getting close to the 16-meter line… he’s searching for an opportunity to kick the ball… he passes the ball off to Spiegler at 20 meters from the goal. He kicks the ball and… Goooooaaaaalllll! He did it! What an extraordinary goal! Spiegler is one of our best players. This is a goal worthy of a World Cup final game – from 30 meters away, like a rocket, 50 centimeters high, to the right side of the Swedish team’s goal. Now the score is 1:1. This is so amazing to see the blue-and-white flag waving here in far-away Toluca.”
Since that historic game 50 years ago, the broadcasters and sports commentators have been asking Israel’s national team when we’ll see another great kick like that one. Even among Israel’s big soccer stars, such as Eli Ohana, Eyal Berkowitz, Haim Revivo, Yossi Benayon and Eran Zehavi, at the end of the day, no one has made a goal like Spiegler, who will be turning 76 this August.
At the 1970 World Cup tournament in Mexico, Spiegler was a young player who would soon be turning 26. He was the captain and one of the brightest stars of the team, alongside other big names like Giora Spiegel, Zvika Rosen, Yitzhak Wissokar, and above all their coach, Emmanuel Scheffer. Scheffer took on this position in 1968, and then led the Israeli team all the way to the quarter finals of the Olympics, which also took place in Mexico. Only the flip of a coin during the game against Bulgaria, in a confrontation that took place off the field, prevented us from continuing on to the semi-finals. Scheffer was known as a strict, uncompromising coach who clashed more than once with his star players. In order to help train his players for the World Cup, he hired Lt. Col. Amos Bar-Hama, who was an IDF fitness trainer. The players would run at Wingate Institute, train at an altitude of 2,600 meters in Ethiopia, and even traveled to Colorado in the US in order to get used the thin air of Mexico.
Were the players on your team extremely talented, or did you just have good luck?
“They were excellent, top-rate players. But I must admit that I had extremely good luck with the wind on the goals I made. I certainly wasn’t a bad player, and later I think I was a good coach.”
What do you remember from the early days of your career?
“I remember every detail so clearly, but I prefer not to talk about what happened in the past.”
Israel was seeded in Group 2 of the World Cup in 1970, along with Italy, Uruguay and Sweden, and the first game took place on June 2 in Puebla, Mexico, a city with 600,000 inhabitants, that sits at an altitude of 2,175 meters above sea level. The night before this historic game, prime minister Golda Meir sent a telegram to the players, which read, “I would like to express my full appreciation of all your efforts and achievements, for reaching the helm and bestowing pride and honor upon Israel in the field of sport.”
‘GOOOOOAAAAALLLLL!’: MOTALEH’S famous kick scored a point against Sweden during the World Cup competition in Toluca, Mexico, June 7, 1970. (Screenshot)‘GOOOOOAAAAALLLLL!’: MOTALEH’S famous kick scored a point against Sweden during the World Cup competition in Toluca, Mexico, June 7, 1970. (Screenshot)
The fact that thousands of Jews attended the game didn’t, however, help the team, and Israel lost to Uruguay 0-2. “Some of the players didn’t follow my directives,” complained Scheffer. “Our key players – Spiegel and Spiegler were having a rough day. I realized that we were far from being in as good shape as the other professional players.” While Spiegler might be reticent now to talk about the details of what transpired, it’s well-known that as he exited the locker room, he criticized the playing style he’d seen that day. “I’m disappointed in how we played today,” he was heard saying to reporters. “In this situation, it’s impossible to keep on top of our opponents and at the same time also try to score a goal.”
So, I tried my luck and asked Spiegler once again if he’d be willing to offer me his version of history.
“Look, I think it’s great that people want to remember what happened that day, but don’t drive me crazy here with all your questions,” Spiegler replied as he stared me down. “It’s not my job to explain why the Israeli national team hasn’t succeeded in all these years in restoring the glory we had under the leadership of Emmanuel Scheffer. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
But that was the biggest moment in Israeli sport history – I mean Israeli soccer history.
“Don’t say that out loud – you might just find yourself ostracized.”
The next two 1970 World Cup games following Israel’s loss to Uruguay were considered even tougher, at least on paper. Sweden was supposed to continue on to the quarterfinals, but it was Italy (sorry for the spoiler) that rose to play against, but then lost to, Brazil.
Before the game began, the historic balance between the Israeli and Swedish teams was four out of five losses by Israel to Sweden. The Jewish community in Mexico tried to spur on the Israeli team and promised to grant $200 to each Israeli player if they were to win or if the game ended in a tie. Swedish footballer Tom Turesson scored a goal in the 54th minute of the game, making the score 1-0, and then three minutes later, Spiegler evened out the score, a glorious moment that will be forever remembered in the annals of history. The BBC expert team determined that Israel’s goal was the finest goal scored up until that moment in the entire tournament. The Swedish press, on the other hand, lamented the incident with scorn. “The Swedish team has brought great shame upon themselves by ending the match with the primitive Israel in a draw,” one of the headlines read.
“Many times, people have called out to me, ‘Good morning, Vissoker,’” Spiegler recalls. “I replied, ‘Good morning to you, too, but I’m Shaya Feigenbaum.’ Fifty years, which is a really long time, have passed since that day. So much has happened since then. I certainly never imagined back then that people would still be talking about that goal, that’s for sure. When you’re young, you aren’t thinking about those kinds of things. We were busy concentrating on playing a precise game and kicking the ball into the goal. That’s it. So, when I went back to playing in the Israeli league, anytime one of my kicks wasn’t perfect, people would scream out at me, ‘Old man!’. I mean, geez, I was only 26 at the time. I looked around me to see who they were referring to. When I realized that they’d been talking to me, well, that was something. I’m no historian, but it is great thinking back to those days. I knew I’d been meant to do things, not sit around and tell stories. I know that when people call me up, they’re not really interested in knowing how I am doing. They just want to celebrate something great, and that’s fine with me.”
Are you disappointed that TV technology was in its early days, and your famous goal had not been caught on camera for posterity?
“You’re not going to succeed in making me feel melancholy. I enjoy what I have, and don’t dwell on what could have been. People want to reconnect with their childhood by talking about something you that happened 50 years ago, and I don’t really want to be a part of that. When people stop me as I’m hurrying down the street in Tel Aviv, and want to talk with me about the goal, I just tell them, ‘Sorry, but I didn’t play in that game.’ I’m not supposed to walk with my head held high when it’s raining, and I don’t hide away when the Israeli national team isn’t successful. To me, soccer was much more than a game. It was the focus of my life for many years, but now I’d like to talk about the future.”
The last game that Israel played at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico was against Italy’s strong national team, which included star players such as Luigi Riva, Giacinto Facchetti and Alessandro Mazzola. The Italians knew that anything less than an outright win would be considered a global sensation. But the surprising tie between Israel and Sweden had made a strong impression, and the Italians’ self-confidence had been undermined. Behind the scenes, the Italians endeavored to have the American referee Henry Landauer replaced, since it was known that his father was Jewish, and a Brazilian referee was indeed appointed to step in. This didn’t stop the Israelis from building a healthy appetite. “What did we have to lose?” Spiegler asks. “I had a good feeling.”
THE ISRAELI national team lineup before its World Cup game with Australia. (Getty Images)THE ISRAELI national team lineup before its World Cup game with Australia. (Getty Images)
Coach Scheffer was also psyched about the upcoming game against Italy.
“We are capable of winning. Let’s surprise them!” he implored his team. It’s true that the Italian team never stopped its attack against us, but we were able to hold our own, and the game ended with a heroic 0-0 draw. But despite the fact that the Italians had secured their rise to the quarterfinals, the Squadra Azzurra were not appeased. And when Yisha’ayahu Schwager offered to swap shirts with Luigi Riva, the latter countered with an angry look.
Unfortunately, the euphoria didn’t last long. Despite the team’s success, Scheffer wouldn’t remain the national team’s coach for long. His relationship with the politicians and wheeler-dealers backing the team, as well as with the players themselves, began disintegrating even before the World Cup had ended. And soon enough, Scheffer found himself on the way out. Israel has never again reached that high, despite the fact that Spiegler’s career accelerated. After playing for Maccabi Netanya, he moved on to Paris Saint-Germain and then to the New York Cosmos, where he played alongside the legendary Pelé.
“There was supposed to be a huge celebration in Paris this summer, since the magnificent Paris Saint-Germain was founded 50 years ago,” Spiegler added. “All the players were invited to gather for the event on August 28, but obviously it has been postponed due to COVID-19. When I go back there, no one asks me if I remember that awesome day. They honor me and interview me for half an hour. One time, the interviewer handed me a team shirt with the number 7 and the name Spiegler written on it. I asked him, ‘Why 7? That wasn’t my number when I played for the team.’ The interviewer replied, ‘Mbappé’ [Kylian Mbappé, one of the team’s current stars]. At this point I did get emotional. Why does this affect me more than when someone calls and asks if I remember that day 50 years ago? Because now I feel like I’m at the health clinic. Think about how someone feels, who put on a show once for everyone and today enjoys saying what he’s been wanting to say for 20 years, since saying it before could have cost him his job.”
And now you’ve had your say.
“Even if you don’t write anything about me, I’ll still give you a hug.”
How about we set a date to speak a decade from now, when Israel celebrates its 60th World Cup anniversary.
“You should be so lucky to live that long.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.