Israel, the World Cup and BDS

Wednesday, June 13, 2018 |  Arthur Schwartzman

Football (or soccer as it's known in North America) is by far Israel’s favorite sport. Once every four years, the flags of different countries adorn the balconies and porches of Israeli fans. It’s time for the World Cup, the most watched sporting event in the world.

Israelis are excited for the upcoming games, though Israel’s national team failed to qualify for the tournament… again. This sad fact surprises no one, because even though Israelis love football, in the international arena, they simply don’t excel.

Why is that so? No one really knows the answer to this question. We have high-paid players competing in premier leagues in Europe, yet countries smaller than us are doing better. Iceland is a good example. With a population of just 380,000, people they qualified for the World Cup. Football was the Icelandic government’s answer to the problem of drug and alcohol abuse among youth. They invested heavily in establishing football academies, open fields for kids to play and let certified coaches train them. Maybe the problem, indeed, lies in how little we budget for and spend on sports.

The only time Israel qualified for the World Cup was in 1970, and memories of those hallowed times are still spoken of today. 

Fast forward back to the present - Israel was all set to close Argentina’s round of the preparation phase with a friendly match here in the Jewish state. Tickets to the game sold out within hours given that one of the most recognizable athletes in the world, Argentina's star forward Lionel Messi, was going to take the field, here, in Israel. Sadly, the game never took place. It was called off due to enormous pressure from the Palestinians and the anti-Israeli Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke twice with his Argentinean counterpart, but the exchanges proved fruitless. Some say that the fault lies with Culture & Sports Minister Miri Regev for insisting the game be held in Jerusalem, instead of Haifa. A large demonstration was held in Barcelona, where the Argentineans were training for the international event. In an outburst of protests, Argentinean jerseys were sprinkled with red paint to resemble blood, and signs with the usual apartheid slogans were seen on the streets. A representative for the BDS movement said: “I think that today’s cancellation is a small part of the growing wave of  support for the BDS, and we hope that Israeli society will start to realize that there is a price to pay for the occupation.” Messi, after seeing his jersey drenched in “blood,” voiced concern that by going ahead with the game, Argentina would be partaking in the whitewashing of the “Israeli occupation.”

It was a defeat for sports, and a defeat for truth. Sports are supposed to bind nations around the world and to bridge divides – not create them. It is not the first time that a foreign team has refused to play in Israel based on political considerations, and it will likely not be the last.

That said, Israelis will continue to love football despite the fact that our national team struggles to move up in the world rankings. They will look to unplug from current events, from the cries that speak hate and lies about their country, and simply enjoy a good game of football.

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