Israel, like many other countries in the world, is football (soccer) mad. Football’s the national sport and the country takes tremendous interest in games and leagues both domestic and international. Every Saturday or Sunday afternoon, thousands of Israelis can be found at the country’s various stadia cheering on their teams.
Although the Israeli league is considered to be rather weak, there is normally a yearly representative in the Champions League or the Europa League (formerly known as the UEFA cup). In the last ten years, Israel has seen Maccabi Haifa defeat Manchester United, Hapoel Tel Aviv defeat AC Milan and Maccabi Tel Aviv defeat Ajax in these competitions. These results, and the participation in these prestigious tournaments, are a source of great pride for Israelis.
The same feelings are often replicated when one of our own plays in one of the big European leagues. From past greats like Haim Revivo (Celta Vigo), Avi Nimni (Atletico Madrid), Tal Banin (Brescia) and Eyal Berkovic (Manchester City & Celtic) to today’s heroes like Yossi Benayoun (Liverpool & Chelsea), Tal Ben Haim (Chelsea & West Ham), Ben Sahar (Chelsea & Espanyol) and Gai Assulin (Barcelona & Manchester City), Israelis love to see their own succeed and represent Israel abroad.
The aforementioned individual and club successes have unfortunately yet to translate into any national team success. Having not been at any major tournament since the 1970 World Cup, most fans funnily enough still believe that the national team will qualify for the next Euro or the World Cup. (Until we actually do, we’ll have to be grateful for seeing our flag waved around as it was by then Hapoel Tel Aviv defender, Ghana’s John Pantsil – picture below).
It seems that most of us fans have internalized David Ben Gurion’s famous quote, “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles!” With football being such a passion for most Israelis, many of the youth dream of being the next Yossi Benayoun or Tal Ben Haim. However, not every kid follows through with these ‘dreams,’ be it due to ability, injuries or … Zionism.
Last year, I joined FC Jaffa, a team in the newly created Anglo Olim League. The 7-team league required all teams to field Anglo Olim, while also allowing two Israeli born players per squad. One of the Israeli players on our team was a 25 year old by the name of Rani Madmon. On the first ride from Jerusalem to our home pitch in Ramat Aviv, Rani and I struck up a conversation about how we played the game while growing up. Rani grew up in the youth system of Beitar Yerushalyaim, one of Israel’s top teams. Ever present in their youth squads from a young age, Rani started talking about all the players he’d grown up with - household names for anyone like me who’s followed Beitar the past few years.
As we discussed the subject more, I asked him why he wasn’t out there at Teddy (Beitar’s Stadium) every second weekend. “I turned down the contract they offered me when I was 18,” he explained. You work your whole life to accomplish a lifelong dream, and when you’re on the cusp of achieving it, you turn it down? “I wanted to defend my family, my friends, my country,” He explained. “I couldn’t stand by as Jerusalem was exploding and do nothing, “ he continued, “Serving in the army was more important than football.”
I was shocked.
You see, even though I feel I am a passionate Zionist, I don’t really know if I could have made that decision if I were in his boots. Rani served 4 years in the army, becoming an officer in combat engineering. He still does miluim (reserve duty) every year and has little regrets about his decision.
Rani is but one story like this. Many of Israel’s talented 18-year-old footballers (not to mention musicians, scientists etc) put their careers on hold, sometimes permanently, in order to join the army and contribute to the defense of Israel. This, and a poor football infrastructure, has continually dented the development of football in our country. However, it’s precisely this dedication and love of Israel, which I think is still prevalent among Israel’s youth, that ensures Israel will overcome the internal and external obstacles in its path.