The Last Word: A worrying politicization of Israeli soccer

The Last Word A worryin

The idea that a Knesset committee should devote time to trying to understand the national soccer team's latest World Cup qualifying failure is so wrong on so many levels. When Education, Culture and Sports Committee chairman MK Zvulun Orlev first came up with this bizarre plan back in September it felt like a joke. "We must see how we can change the current situation," Orlev said. "We haven't made it to a World Cup in 40 years and that must change." Orlev was right that the situation must be addressed, but most definitely mistaken in thinking that it was up to the politicians to grill those responsible for the disappointment. So when the issue was finally brought before the committee on Wednesday it was no surprise that many of the individuals invited, including national team coach Dror Kashtan, failed to turn up. Forcing IFA Chairman Avi Luzon and others to schlep to the Knesset and explain themselves was demeaning and, ultimately, embarrassing. It was for good reason that the majority of those involved in the local sports world paid little attention to the Knesset members' sudden concern for the fate of soccer in this country. The national team is an institution run by the Israel Football Association, not the government. While the national team represents the State of Israel, and the government provides a small percentage of its funding, there is no reason to think its management should be answerable to the politicians themselves. The IFA is an organization with numerous committees and departments, which is constructed well enough to include its own system of checks and balances. Those in charge of the national team should, indeed, question why and how Israel managed to do so badly in its campaign to qualify for South Africa 2010, especially considering the relatively low quality of its opponents in Group 2 - Switzerland, Greece and Latvia should never have posed the problems they did for Kashtan and his players. However, that Orlev, Ophir Paz-Pines and the other committee members had the misguided view that, as representatives of the Israeli people, they had an obligation to find out the IFA's excuses is somewhat worrying. Sport is a creative pursuit, comparable to other cultural activities such as painting and making music. Many Israeli citizens would be shocked if the country's politicians demanded that Ahinoam Nini and Miri Awad come before a Knesset committee to explain exactly why they failed to finish in the top 10 at the Eurovision Song Contest this past May. It simply is not up to the Knesset to look into these issues. Luckily the committee has no direct power over the IFA besides controlling part of its funding, although the discussion itself made it feel like we were moving in that direction. A probe such as this came across as more totalitarian than democratic, reminding one of the stories told of the Iraqi Football Association in the 1980s when it was run by Saddaam Hussein's son Uday. It is unlikely that Orlev was planning to subject Kashtan or Luzon to whippings or baths in sewage as punishment for losing a few soccer matches, but he should never have taken the approach that he did. The Israel soccer team won't be at the World Cup finals next year because the players didn't perform in the qualifying matches as well as they needed to - that is all the politicians need to know on any official basis. If we didn't realize it before, the committee meeting only underlined Orlev and his colleagues' poor understanding of the workings of soccer in this country. Paz-Pines claimed the main problem is the way local soccer clubs are being run, while Orlev came across as a man way out of his depth. Instead of wasting their time trying to force themselves into the sports pages of the local media, these politicians would do better to focus on more pressing issues of national importance and leave the running of the country's soccer teams to the professionals. And if they were really interested in the future of sports in Israel, the committee members should have taken a more positive approach. In that manner, they could have used the opportunity to look at ways of building a bright future on the many talented young players as well as the host of stars playing abroad, rather than accusing the IFA of failing the nation.