Middle Israel: Why we missed the World Cup

Soccer is just a game. But then, so is international politics.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Having been told that some thought soccer is a matter of life and death, Bill Shankly begged to differ: "It's much more serious than that," said the legendary Liverpool manager. A humbly born Scotsman whose team won four English championships and three European cups, Shankly once said he had no choice but to use his brains because he had no education. Soccer has, in fact, long been associated with the uneducated, and its heroes have frequently been, for better or worse, as socially disadvantaged and intellectually challenged as Diego Maradonna ("it was a little bit God's hand"), Paul Gascoigne ("because of the booking I will miss the Holland game - if selected") or Alon Mizrahi ("I want to play either in Europe or in Spain.") There were exceptions, like Raul Geller, the Peurvian orthopedist who arrived here in the mid-1960s and led Betar Jerusalem's historic rise to the premier league, or Brazil midfielder Socrates, whose brilliance in successive World Cups came while he studied medicine, but the spectator sport with the simplest rules and the least necessary equipment remained largely the lot of the proletariat, and even the under-classes. Its fans, at the same time, have included pretty much everyone, from Benitto Mussolini to Henry Kissinger. In Israel, soccer broadcasts routinely include analysis by highbrows like Hebrew University historian Moshe Zimmerman or Tel Aviv University political scientist Avraham Ben-Zvi. Even so, Israel's repeated failures to reach the World Cup remain largely unexplained. IN RECENT years soccer seems to have lost some of its pizzazz. Latin American leagues, whose audiences' purchasing power is but a fraction of Europe's, have degenerated because their players moved east, and international competition lost some of its pepper. Playing styles are losing national distinction; everyone watches everyone else at will, live, on cable, and all five continents' great players often know each other better than they know many of their national teams' colleagues. Worse yet, players have become to fast, strong and identical that they effectively besiege scorers and castrate the game. A World Cup final ending with a score of 5:2, as in Brazil's defeat of Sweden in 1958, is today unthinkable. After the Mundials of 1990 and 1994 ended with the unprecedented results of 1:0 and 0:0, the latter also breeding a penalty shootout disgracefully deciding the championship, there were calls to review the game's rules. Alas, rational suggestions like abolishing the offside rule, enlarging the goal, or limiting defenders' presence near their own goal have been met with a reactionary establishment whose enthusiasm for change is about as high Bashar Assad's for UN investigations. And yet, when it comes to the Mundial, all athletic, esthetic and economic misgivings about the state of the game are set aside. Soccer, even when boring, has somehow come to substitute international conflict, channeling thousands of restless youngsters into bubbling stadiums where they transfigure from yesteryear's sorry cannon fodder into our era's wretched football hooligans. Meanwhile, down in the field, national soccer teams are indeed prone to unwittingly make plausible statements about the state of their nations. Obviously, to suggest arbitrarily and sweepingly that international soccer success reflects national merit would be ludicrous. Brazil's five world cups were won while its slums were festering and mushrooming, Argentina won in 1978 while its leaders were throwing innocent people out of helicopters, and fascist Italy won the cup twice. Then again, there was also a frequent correlation between national rejuvenation and soccer brilliance. The former East Bloc's teams generally played unimaginatively and did not get far, with three exceptions: Hungary of 1954, which led in the final 2:0 before losing 4:2 to West Germany; Czechoslovakia of 1962 which lost 3:1 to Brazil; and the Polish team that won third place in 1982. As it were, Hungary's accomplishments came on the eve of its gutsy revolt against the USSR; the Czech success came while the liberalism that was crushed in 1968 began to sprout in Prague; and the Polish feat came when Solidarity and John Paul II confronted communism. The USSR itself never did well in the World Cup, always displaying a lackluster group of programmed robots who seemed incapable of enjoying the game, until 1986, when its team suddenly played a liberated and pretty game that seemed like a metaphor on the glasnost policy which was introduced at the time. Similarly, England's lone win of the cup in 1966 came just when the Beatles were making the entire world rock to British tunes, and the successes in the 1990s of Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia echoed their deliverance from totalitarian yoke. What, then, does all this mean about us? THE JEWISH state reached one Mundial, and failed to reach 14. Its lone success came in 1970, just when Israel's self-confidence was at its highest following the Six Day War, and when its idea of fighting was to attack. Subsequent Israeli soccer was frustratingly lackluster, until the stunning 3:2 defeat of France, in Paris, which eliminated it from US '94, and unveiled a short, inventive, 21-year-old player called Eyal Berkovitz. That victory took place in November '93, several weeks after the signing of the Oslo Accords. Like the Soviet team of 1986, the Israeli side at the time reflected a broader Zeitgeist of unconventional thinking, which made it reach the 2000 European Cup's qualifiers playoffs, and later defeat Austria 5:0 as Israel nearly qualified to the '02 World Cup. Yet like the Oslo vision, the soccer team's performance last decade reflected not only unorthodoxy, but also naivete. And so, what began in fall '93 with that victory in Paris, ended in '99 with crushing 5:0 and 3:0 defeats by Denmark that sealed that team's European Cup hopes, and made a farce of its pretensions. Then, in 2002, after a disappointing stint with a foreign coach, an Israeli named Avraham Grant was hired. It was the time when terror was striking daily and the Israeli psyche was on the defensive. So was Grant. Under Grant's leadership Israel did on the soccer pitch what it initially did in the face of terror: circled the wagons. Grant played an unattractive, unimaginative game that generated no defeats, but also very few goals, and even fewer victories. And in line with the cowardice that was written all over his attitude, he discharged the outspoken Berkovitz, evidently fearing his charisma, even after France had the vision to restore veteran star Zinadine Zidan, whose very renewed presence inspired the French, rekindled their offensiveness, and ultimately made them win. And so, while in its war on terror Israel moved from defense to offense, its soccer team was inspired by the separation fence, but neglected to draw conclusions from the IDF's commando raids and targeted killings, which should have meant storming opponents' goals and putting the ball between their posts. And like the defeatists who initially led our response to the terror challenge, Grant argued that what he yielded was the best Israel could do considering its limitations. The team, in other words, was led by someone who deep inside did not believe victory was feasible. Soccer, despite Shankly's insight, is less than a matter of life or death. It is, however, a test of national attitudes, and that is why Avraham Grant - who resigned on Wednesday - must be succeeded by someone who will better express contemporary Israeli understanding of what constitutes will, combat and victory.