Israel’s World Cup Cinderella story

“There is only one big, united family. If only we would learn to live in such brotherhood and peace in our country.”

 ISRAELI PLAYERS celebrate after defeating South Korea to take third place in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup tournament, last Sunday in La Plata, Argentina. (photo credit: AGUSTIN MARCARIAN/REUTERS)
ISRAELI PLAYERS celebrate after defeating South Korea to take third place in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup tournament, last Sunday in La Plata, Argentina.

It’s one of the best comedic moments in the 1980 cult film Airplane! 

A flight attendant, played by Julie Hagerty, is walking down the aisle offering passengers reading material. 

She stops next to an elderly woman and asks if she’d like something to read.

“Do you have anything light?” the woman asks.

The attendant reaches into the pile of heavy folders she’s carrying and takes out a piece of paper no bigger than a postcard.

“How about this leaflet, Famous Jewish Sports Legends?” she offers.

One is reminded of the old Yiddish joke: “If you see a Jew with a dog, either the Jew isn’t much of a Jew or the dog isn’t much of a dog.”

If you encounter a Jewish sportsman, the conventional wisdom goes, either the Jew isn’t much of a Jew or the sport isn’t much of a sport.

Lessons from Israel's athletic youth

What ought we to make, then, of Israel’s under-20 soccer team, which stunned the world by winning game after game in its recent FIFA U-20 World Cup debut, getting as far as the semifinal before falling to Uruguay and going on to beat South Korea for a historic third place finish?

IT HAD all the hallmarks of a Cinderella story.

Israel, which formed its youth team more than 60 years ago, in 1962, had never qualified for the prestigious U-20 World Cup – until last year, when it won second place in the UEFA European Under-19 Championship for the first time in its history, securing its spot. (The country has qualified for the senior World Cup only once, in 1970, when it scored a single goal against Sweden and was swiftly eliminated.)

Israel’s qualification put original 2023 World Cup host Indonesia in a bind. The Muslim-majority, soccer-crazed country, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, had won its bid to host the championship back in 2019 – when, officials recently said, it had no reason to believe the Jewish state would qualify.

As the event drew closer, the voices calling on the Indonesian government to refuse to host the Israelis intensified, protesters took to the streets, and the country’s president was forced to deliver a televised address in which he reaffirmed his government’s support for the Palestinian cause, but pleaded with his fellow countrymen to “not mix sports and politics.”

It didn’t work. The governor of Bali – one of the provinces that were to have hosted the tournament – declared his opposition to the presence of the Israeli team and demanded that it be banned from competing. FIFA consequently announced that Indonesia would be stripped of the right to host the event and, after a whirlwind bidding process, awarded it to Argentina.

WITH NAMES like Feingold and Khalaily, Revivo and Kancepolsky, the team that landed in Buenos Aires on May 15 represented the tapestry of Israeli society: Jews and Arabs, immigrants and native Israelis, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim. They were greeted at their hotel by dozens of members of the Argentine Jewish community, waving Israeli flags and chanting “El, el, Yisra’el.”

Things got off to a rocky start. Israel lost its first game against Colombia and then tied with Senegal.

From its third game onwards, however, the team started winning: first against Japan, then against Uzbekistan, and finally – thrillingly – against soccer powerhouse and five-time champion Brazil, catapulting the Jewish state to the semifinal.

It is unusual for the television screens in The Jerusalem Post newsroom to show sports, but that’s exactly what happened on Sunday night as the country held its collective breath before erupting in cheers when the Israelis swept South Korea to a magnificent 3:1 finish – widely regarded as Israel’s best-ever showing in the sport and all the more impressive given that it was the first time Israel had even qualified for the U-20 tournament.

The Israeli teens landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport in the wee hours of Wednesday morning with bronze medals hanging from their necks and were greeted at the airport’s VIP terminal by a gaggle of family members, well-wishers and media.

“There are no Jews and Arabs on this team,” said head coach Ofir Haim.

“There is only one big, united family. If only we would learn to live in such brotherhood and peace in our country.”

The truth is that, all joking aside, Israel has had its fair share of sports achievements over the years. Israeli athletes have brought home 13 Olympic medals since the country’s debut in Helsinki in 1952 – more than half in the last four Games alone. The country is a veritable powerhouse in martial arts, water sports and gymnastics – and Israeli sportsmen and women regularly bring home gold medals from various international championships.

Israeli basketball and soccer teams have won Asian and European championships, including in 1977, when American-born hoopster Tal Brody memorably exclaimed, “We’re on the map and we’re staying on the map,” upon winning the European title with Maccabi Tel Aviv. Israel plays host to the Maccabiah Games, the “Jewish Olympics,” every four years, and numerous Maccabiah medalists have gone on to win Olympic medals.

Indonesia’s World Cup debacle was just the latest in a long line of boycotts and other forms of poor sportsmanship visited on Israel and its athletes over the years. Iran and other countries have forced their athletes to fake injuries, throw matches, or simply refuse to compete against Israelis, drawing penalties from sports’ governing bodies. Israeli athletes have been refused visas, forced to compete under generic flags, and denied the opportunity to hear their own anthem played when they’ve won medals in events taking place in countries that do not maintain diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

NONE OF that has dampened Israeli athletes’ enthusiasm or hampered their achievements. What might achieve that, however, is a lack of government investment.

Experts tend to agree that Israel invests significantly less in sports than do other Western countries. A 2017 report by the Knesset Research and Information Center found a direct link between government funding for competitive sports and countries’ achievements therein – noting that Israel’s investments are both comparatively low and inefficient. In other words, we aren’t spending enough on sports and we also aren’t getting our money’s worth.

Israel Football Association Chairman Moshe Zoaretz recently lamented the state of government funding for Israeli sports.

“The budget for sports, and particularly for soccer, needs to be much higher,” he told Globes last week.

“I could double the number of players, and it’s clear that if there are more players, there will be more outstanding talents. There is great distress here.”

“There aren’t enough facilities here – we are light years behind other countries when it comes to investment in sports, and there aren’t enough players,” said former soccer player and current commentator Ori Uzan.

“Politicians love to call and hug us after games, and that’s very nice, but without investing in soccer there’s no way we’re going to move forward.”

The previous government’s April 2022 announcement that it would invest NIS 3 billion in sports infrastructure and facilities across the country – with a particular emphasis on Israel’s Arab, Druze, and other minority communities – was an important step in the right direction. But while Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar had announced a NIS 1 billion increase in his ministry’s budget in February, the actual state budget passed last month kept funding for sports at roughly the same level as it was in 2022.

SPORTS ARE a valuable source of national prestige and pride. Observers around the world are marveling at the Israeli U-20 team’s spectacular success in Argentina and we Israelis are justifiably gratified. But for Israel to replicate and build on that success, and on the remarkable achievements of its athletes in a range of sports, it will need to make funding for sports a priority. The human material is there. The question – to borrow an idiom from another sport – is whether the government will step up to the plate.

Or, to quote TV’s Ted Lasso, “I do love a locker room. Smells like potential.”