One of the fun things about being an American Jew is that during international competitions like the FIFA World Cup or Olympics, if America loses an event, American Jews can always cheer on Israel as well. For this latest installment of the World Cup, unfortunately neither possibility are true as both teams did not make it to the grand tournament. Israel still has a subtle but surprising presence behind the scenes of this World Cup in Russia.
Although the Israeli national team hasn’t been in a World Cup since 1970, the country and its citizens still love the action and get involved however they can. From Jewish athletes to parts of the game that most people wouldn’t know have Jewish roots, Jewish and Israeli hands are all over the World Cup.
Israel’s men’s national soccer team gets the chance to qualify for the World Cup every four years just like every other country, but it’s not as simple as that. To qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Israel needed to do well enough in the Union of European Football Association’s Group G to get the invitation to Russia for the tournament. The challenge is that this group includes perennial favorites Spain and Italy while Israel’s bordering neighbors played in the Asian Football Confederation. Egypt is one exception, playing in the Confederation of African Football.
The Israeli Football Association once competed in the Asian Football Confederation in the middle of the last century until other members of the confederation boycotted the nascent state. During a time when pan-Arab nationalism and solidarity with the Palestinian people were on the rise, the Asian Football Confederation expelled Israel from the confederation in a 17-13 vote organized and led by Kuwait in 1974.
This history and Israel failing to qualify again hasn’t stopped Israelis from getting the soccer fever, packing pubs just like fans from every other country around the globe.
“There are a lot of Russian-Israelis rooting here,” said Jason Jungreis, owner of Mike’s Place on the Tel Aviv boardwalk, as he referred to the bar filled with fans festooned in national colors for Thursday night’s match between Russia and Saudi Arabia, the Jerusalem Post reported.
Locals seem to show the most support for Argentina, whose national team was supposed to play Israel last week until the match was cancelled. Israel’s embassy even created a video to show its support of the Argentinian team.
Yahel Murvitz Lahav, 26, is a Technion medical student has deeper reasons for supporting Argentina.
“A few friends and I, we made a bet. I’m hoping Belgium will win so I can win [the money]. But I’m actually rooting for Argentina, for my grandparents. On my Dad’s side, they made aliya from Argentina.”
Even Americans in Israel like Joel Strauss are excited to watch despite not having a rooting interest. “I didn’t even plan to watch it at first because neither the US nor Israel qualified,” Strauss said.
People like Strauss can still see a Jewish presence if they look closely enough. The Jerusalem Post details a few of these hidden storylines, including how Colombia has a Jewish coach, Nigeria and Serbia each have an Israeli athlete, an app called “soccer-hay” helps Jews navigating through Russia, and Israel’s booming sports tech industry is behind many of the analytics and innovations that will enhance the experience for fans across the globe. When Jewish soccer fans scream in excitement for a goal, they can also do so knowing that the man who made it famous to shout “GOAL” at the top of his lungs is Argentinian Jew Andrés Cantor.