The last word: Should Israel play on Shabbat?

Whether the players realize it or not, the national team represents the Jewish people.

shabbat candles 88 (photo credit: )
shabbat candles 88
(photo credit: )
Shlomo Scharf is not a religious man. But the former Israel national soccer coach had harsh words for Israel Football Association chairman Iche Menahem last week after it emerged that the IFA had apparently made no effort to prevent the qualifying games for the Euro 2008 championships being played on Shabbat. Scharf, who coached the national side from 1992 to 2000, was flabbergasted when he heard that the much anticipated England vs Israel game at Wembley Stadium next September will be played on a Saturday - hours before sundown.
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Calling for Menahem's resignation, he said that during the eight years he ran the national team, Israel never played on Shabbat, and to do so would break a tradition that had been kept for years. Whether the players realize it or not, the national team represents the Jewish people, and it can only be a positive thing to show the world that Israel has some sort of dedication to Jewish traditions. And, playing on Shabbat means that religious Jews will have no chance of seeing the Israeli team play, especially in England where the sizeable Jewish community is already incredibly excited at the prospect of Yossi Benayoun and Tal Ben-Haim facing up against David Beckham's England. Granted, it's never easy working out the scheduling of qualifying games for major international soccer tournaments, where each country has to play the others in its group both home and away. UEFA or FIFA provide a list of dates the games can take place and it is up to representatives from each of the football associations to work out a fixture list that keeps everyone happy. However, when Menahem flew out to Zagreb a couple of weeks ago to sit down with the leaders of the English, Croatian, Russian, Andorran, Estonian and Macedonian FAs to bang out a deal, he appeared to forget that there is an unofficial policy to at least try and convince the local FAs to ensure the times of the matches do not coincide with the Jewish Sabbath. Menahem last week seemed to have no idea that the timing of the England match had been decided, let alone that the British Jewish sports body Maccabi GB had been campaigning for the FA to not hold the game during Shabbat. At first glance you could accuse Scharf of making a mountain out of a mole hill. The point made by British FA representative Simon Johnson was that UEFA decided on the days matches can be played, most of them are on Saturdays, and the London police refuse to allow a late kickoff. Although the accepted view is that it is impossible to change the dates, if the will was there, then it would not be too difficult to encourage UEFA to allow Israel to play on a Sunday instead of a Saturday. Take Brigham Young University in deepest Utah, western America. This institution has a student body of 30,000, many of whom are Mormons - believers in the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." The Mormon laws prevent its followers from working on a Saturday and therefore BYU has managed to convince the NCAA to create a fixture list so their games are never held during the Sabbath. If the Mormons can do it, why not the mighty Israel. If the IFA realized the importance of this on a national Jewish scale, perhaps they would have made more of an effort rather than sink into a routine of giving in to the whims of the governing football bodies. Many people could argue that this is totally hypocritical. How can the national team refuse to play on Shabbat when the local league is held during the Sabbath each week? Well first of all, the local teams do not represent all Jewish people. But maybe this should also be changed. The argument that there are no other times because Sunday is a working day is just rubbish. There are enough timeslots on Saturday night, Friday afternoon, Monday night and even Thursday night to fit the games in. At the moment it seems incredibly unlikely that this would happen. According to Johnson, the timing of the England game is "set in stone." But the away games in Russia, Macedonia and Estonia, all scheduled for Saturdays, are probably not. We can only hope that when Menahem leaves his post later this year, his successor understands what the Israel team represents and acts in the correct manner.