For those watching the 2018 World Cup, each and every game can be a nail-biting affair. Every fan wants to see their national team do well and prime ministers and presidents without fail seek to capitalise on the back of a winning display. President Putin, in his opening of the tournament, reminded his global audience that Russia ‘loved’ football and was proud to host the event in an ‘open, hospitable and friendly country’. While Russia is not expected to win the entire event, few will deny that the hosting of the World Cup is another feather in the cap for a political leader of a country condemned for breaches of international law.
Spare a thought, however, for those fans who rarely get to see their national team compete in any World Cup. The list is a long one and includes large numbers of countries from the global south, along with smaller European nations such as Finland and Luxembourg. Another country affected by non-participation is Israel. Since 1970, the Israeli national football team has failed to qualify for any World Cup tournament. That year, in the event hosted by Mexico, Israel lost to Uruguay and drew with Italy and Sweden. It was a tough group and the team finished bottom of their table.
Fast-forward to 2018, Iran and Saudi Arabia are qualifiers but once again Israel failed to make the cut. The country’s potential path to the World Cup lay via UEFA’s Group G competition. Their six-strong group included two tournament-winning nations, Spain and Italy. By way of contrast, Saudi Arabia and Iran qualified through their participation in Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Both teams performed well and beat countries such as Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Uzbekistan. Neither Iran or Saudi Arabia had to face, prior to the World Cup tournament, a former World Cup winner.
Israel was not always party to UEFA. For many years, it was a member of the AFC. Between 1954 and 1974, however, the country faced difficulties in qualifying because of boycotts and hostility from Middle Eastern neighbours and Muslim-majority states. The most absurd situation came in the lead-up to the 1958 World Cup tournament when Indonesia, Sudan and Turkey all refused to play the Israeli team. FIFA organised a special play-off game involving Wales, which Israel lost thus failing to progress any further. By 1974, Kuwait pushed a motion calling for Israel’s expulsion from the AFC, and as a result the latter was transplanted into European and Oceania qualification tournaments for much of the 1970s and 1980s.
After 20 years of displacement, Israel was admitted into UEFA in 1994. While it means that Israeli teams have often had to face formidable European opponents, it has ensured that the withdrawals and boycotts of the past have disappeared. Israel may not have qualified but it has at least been able to play all their opponents. For a country that faces international pressure in other areas of its foreign and security policies, Israeli participation in football is recognised as a helpful counter-balance. Israeli public relations and media make reference to top-performing Israeli players and their success in European domestic football competitions. For example, former Israeli team captain Yossi Benayoun played for Chelsea in 2012-3, after spells with other English clubs including West Ham and Liverpool.
Israel’s participation in UEFA qualifiers may be tough in footballing terms but there remain countries that will not compete against Israeli sports people, including Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Kuwait. In early June 2018, Argentina cancelled a friendly game with Israel scheduled to be played in Jerusalem. One reason cited at the time was an unspecified threat directed against the Argentine captain, Lionel Messi. Others pointed to growing public and online pressure directed towards the team given Israeli violence against Palestinian protestors. The decision to shift the game away from Haifa to the contested city of Jerusalem was identified as a further act of provocation. Whatever the deciding factor, the decision not to play against Israel was widely celebrated by Palestinians and their network of supporters.
Despite protestations to the contrary, football embodies geopolitics and geopolitics is performed through football. The Israeli story is far more convoluted, involving embargo, exile and relocation. While Israel has enjoyed some footballing success, its involvement in UEFA qualifiers alongside other cultural events such as the Eurovision Song Contest (since 1973 and winning four times), contributes to its public image as a nation-state that has more in common with European liberal democracies that neighbouring autocratic Middle Eastern regimes. So while disappointing to Israeli football fans, the country’s ongoing participation in UEFA qualifiers is something for them to savour in the midst of calls to boycott, disinvest and sanction.
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