Borderline Views: Football escapism

We are as far away from resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict as ever – but it can be put on hold for one more month as we soccer fans escape into World Cup bliss.

Only three days to go and the greatest tournament in the world kicks off. Once every four years, tens of millions of soccer supporters around the globe, like me, undertake a month of total escapism from the world and its problems and, instead, choose to spend our time watching 11 overpaid, largely uneducated men kick a ball around. From prime ministers to road sweepers and from professors to students (and not a few rabbis), we will find every possible excuse to arrange our schedules around the soccer fixtures.
It’s taken us 60 years and we are as far from resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict as ever – but it can be put on hold for one more month. Israelis and Palestinians will watch the games in their homes and bars, sitting on the streets, cracking sunflower seeds and cheering on their adopted teams. Political boundaries will be crossed as those countries which do not have representatives at the tournament choose to support the same teams. There will be no difference between the Palestinians sitting outside the coffee houses of Ramallah and Gaza and the Israelis in Tel Aviv and Sderot.
It has been my experience that one of the great ice breakers at informal political meetings of Israelis, Palestinians and other adversaries is a discussion about the European soccer leagues. Every one has their favorite team and player, and it is not uncommon for political adversaries to have an animated discussion about the latest soccer news before getting down to the difficult political and national issues on the agenda.
Since our national team did not qualify for the World Cup finals, we have the luxury of rooting for those teams which have a higher probability of winning. With the single exception of the 1970 World Cup, the national team has never qualified for this global soccer festival. We weren’t so far off this time, but the discipline required to get through the qualifying stages and to stick in there until the very final moment always seems to disappear where Israel is concerned. Even the increase in the number of Israeli players in the European leagues has not changed the basic structure of the game here – players who are vastly overpaid and vastly overrate themselves, but whose playing skills are equivalent to no more than the European minor leagues.
Given the diverse backgrounds of Jewish immigrants to Israel, there is support for many of the big teams – no shortage of French, Argentinean and British fans in this country. Even the US has a team in the World Cup, but few of the Americans here that I know have any awareness or understanding of this global game. For them, the “world” series is an annual all-American affair, also called football, but vastly different to the one which will be the focus of global attention for the next four weeks.
OUTSIDE ISRAEL, Jews are to be numbered among the soccer supporters and, increasingly, among the shareholders and owners of the clubs. But kicking a ball around a field has never really been considered a good profession for a Jewish boy – except that is, here where we have – as David Ben-Gurion prophesied – everything from Jewish professors to road sweepers, from doctors to sportsmen and from businessmen to thieves.
When the first Israeli footballer came to play for an English team in the 1970s (Avi Cohen played for Liverpool), it was greeted with great surprise by the local Jewish community – this was not something perceived as being associated with either Jews or Israel. But in the intervening period there have been others who have made their mark on the English game – players such as Ronni Rosenthal, Eyal Berkovitch and, most recently and by far the most successful of all Israeli players ever to have played in the UK, the present captain of the national team, Yossi Benayoun.
It is not a player however, but an Israeli manager who is probably the best known Israeli soccer personality in the world’s top league. Avram Grant, the former manager of Maccabi Haifa, Maccabi Tel Aviv and the national team has, just this week, been appointed as the new manager of the London team West Ham United, following spells as manager at both Portsmouth and Chelsea. In the case of Chelsea, he even took the team as far as the Champions League final before being dismissed by Russian Jewish oligarch and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich.
Just two months ago, his Portsmouth team surprisingly knocked another London team, Tottenham, out of the semifinals of the FA Cup. But the following morning, the media couldn’t find him anywhere as they clamored to interview him following this famous victory. Grant had flown to Poland to attend the Holocaust Remembrance Day memorial at Auschwitz, where some of his family had been murdered. In doing so, Grant did more for Holocaust awareness among thousands of British youth than all of the teachers, emissaries and ambassadors together. It may sound superficial, but it is a reality. Sports personalities have become the media heroes, and the youth pay more attention to what they do in their off-field activities than to their teachers.
It is not normal for me to make prophecies or predict the future, but I will do so this time. As an ex-Brit, I want the England team to win the World Cup. But it is highly overrated and seems to have ended a long, tough Premier League season tired and with too many injuries to get beyond the final four. My prediction therefore is as follows. The final will be between Brazil and Spain – and the winner will be (as is so often the case) Germany. Go figure.
A month of escapism awaits us. Let’s sit back and enjoy.
The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the international journal of Geopolitics.