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What the heck does Israel have to do with the World Cup?

דב הליקמן

Israel may not be present as one of the 32 nations competing in the World Cup 2018 in Russia, but they certainly have plenty of representation across the countries that are playing in the prestigious tournament. The Blue & White haven’t featured on football’s biggest stage since the 1970 edition was held in Mexico, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find ourselves all over the map. Let’s take a look at the teams from Argentina to Uruguay:

Argentina – Leo Messi may not have played with Argentina in Israel, but arguably one of the greatest players ever, Maradona certainly did in 1986, 1990 and 1994 just before The Albiceleste went to the World Cup.

Australia – Israel faced Australia in 1969 in the Asia-Oceania final for a ticket to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. The first match in Ramat Gan Stadium ended in a 1:0 victory for the Blue & White and the return leg result in Australia was a 1:1 draw. Mordechai Speigler’s goal was enough to send the Blue & White to their only World Cup appearance.

Belgium – Israel hosted Belgium in March of 2015 for a UEFA European Championship clash at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. Some of the most well known footballers in the world appeared in this match including Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois.

Brazil – Brazil have visited Israel on 3 occasions for friendlies as the likes of Rivaldo and Ronaldo graced the Ramat Gan pitch. Each match ended in a Seleção victory.

Costa Rica – One of Costa Rica’s only footballers that played in Israel was Luis Marin with Maccabi Netanya between 2006-2009. The centre back also made 128 appearances for his country in international play.

Colombia – Jose Pekerman the Colombia Head Coach since 2012 is Jewish. He was born in Argentina but after Colombia qualified for the 2014 World Cup, Pekerman was granted Colombian citizenship.

Croatia – Israel visited the town of Osijek, Croatia in 2016 for a friendly against the host’s. When Yossi Benayoun was introduced late in the contest, over 12,000 fans stood up and gave him a standing ovation, recognizing him as one of the greatest footballers and paying tribute to the former Liverpool star.

Denmark – Israel was on the cusp of making the UEFA European Championships in 2000 but had to face Denmark in a two legged playoff round tie. The pair of matches didn’t exactly go the Blue & White’s way as they lost on aggregate 8:0.

England – Israel has only played England once in World Cup qualifying and they did so in 2007 when they drew 0:0 in the Holy Land and fell 3:0 in Britain. The Three Lions coach during that campaign was Steve McClaren who worked as a consultant for Maccabi Tel Aviv this past season.

Egypt – The star of the Egyptian national team is none other than Mohamed Salah who plays his club football for Liverpool. But back in 2013 he was with Basel and visited the Holy Land playing in a crazy 3:3 draw against Maccabi Tel Aviv in a Champions League qualification match.

France – Israel shocked France back in 1993 when the Blue & White went into Parc des Princes and eliminated the Bleu, Blanc & Rouge from the qualification tournament of the 1994 World Cup that was held for the first time in the United States.

Germany – Manuel Neuer, Germany’s all-star keeper made a huge impression on Israeli youth when his father Peter was in Jerusalem for Yom HaShoa. I had the privilege to do a program with him together with At-Risk youth where he distributed autographed postcards of his son to all of the children.

Iceland – Vidar Kjartansson who plies his trade for Maccabi Tel Aviv was the first player from Iceland to play in the Holy Land. Since his arrival in 2016 he has scored 32 goals in 62 appearances.

Iran – Did you know that the Israel National Team used to visit Tehran on a regular basis playing against Iran in the Asian Cup Championship and Asian games numerous times, the last time being in 1974.

Japan – Israel sports a perfect 5-0 record against Japan in both World Cup qualifying and Asian Cup matches between 1973-1977.

Mexico – Mexico and 1970 will always be synonymous with Israeli football fans as being the only World Cup that the Blue & White have appeared in.

Morocco – There are no less than 150 Israeli footballers who have Moroccan heritage. From Eli Ohana to Hanan Maman there are stars who can claim they had their roots in the African nation.

Nigeria – Plenty of Nigerians have impacted the local football scene but one big man sticks out in John Ogu. Not only has he won 3 straight championships with Hapoel Beer Sheva but will also be representing the Super Eagles at the World Cup.

Panama – Julio Dely Valdes may have been Panama’s greatest player. But did you know that his brother Armando Dely Valdés played for Maccabi Tel Aviv and Beitar Tel Aviv between 1989-1991 and has a stadium need after him in Colon?

Peru – A number of players from Peru graced the pitches in Israel with Junior Viza being one of the most recognizable footballers as the Peruvian played for Beitar Jerusalem and Hapoel Petah Tikva.

Poland – Andrej Kubica and Grzegorz Wedzynski were two of the best Polish footballers to play in Israel and both featured prominently for Maccabi Tel Aviv in the 1990’s.

Portugal – One of the game’s premier stars, Cristiano Ronaldo made a stop in Israel with his national team back in March 2013 when Portugal played in Israel as part of 2014 World Cup qualifying. The Blue & White held him scoreless as the side’s drew 3:3.

Russia – The host nation has provided many a footballer to Israel over the years especially following the fall of the iron curtain. Aleksandr Uvarov, who has been at Maccabi Tel Aviv as a player and then as a coach since 1991, represented the USSR in the 1990 World Cup. Shura as he is known, has been an asset to Israeli football for close to 30 years.

Saudi Arabia – Did you know that Israel will be broadcasting World Cup games for free via satellite to Arab nations in the Middle East complete with pre-game discussion and live commentary in Arabic? How about that piece of Zionism through Sports for our neighbors!

Senegal – Moussa Konate was just an 18-year old when he arrived in Israel and impressed Maccabi Tel Aviv Head Coach Moti Ivanir in 2011. Since then, the winger has played in France scoring close to 50 goals and will be playing for his national team in Russia.

Serbia – Maccabi Tel Aviv’s shot stopper Predrag Rajikovic is the second choice keeper for the Serbian National Team who begin their World Cup Campaign against Costa Rica on Sunday.

South Korea – Israel defeated South Korea once back in 1964 when the Blue & White hosted the Asian Cup which they would hoist at the end of the tournament for the country’s only continental tournament win.

Spain – Spain visited Israel back in 2017 and defeated the host 1:0 in a 2018 World Cup qualifier. Some of the stars who will be appearing for Spain in Russia played in Holy Land including Real Madrid icon Sergio Ramos.

Sweden – Rada Prica burst onto the Israeli scene with Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2013 helping the Yellow & Blue win 3 straight championships and was part of the 2014/15 Treble.

Switzerland – Israel and Switzerland have played each other four times in FIFA World Cup qualifying with each contest ending in a draw.

Tunisia – Elyaniv Barda, Beer Sheva’s captain who recently retired, is of Tunisian descent and also played in Belgium for Genk where he scored 57 goals.

Uruguay – One of the country’s most traveled players Sebastián Abreu played for Beitar Jerusalem back in 2008. Most traveled? Abreu played for 31(!) club teams and is still active while also making 70 appearances for his National Team.

So sit back and enjoy the greatest tournament on earth over the next month and see how Israeli football will impact and be impacted by the 32 nations who will battling for the crown.

Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel Sports Adventures for tourists and residents http://sportsrabbi.com/ 
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Contact the Sports Rabbi via email sportsrabbi9@gmail.com