Israel may not be one of the 32 nations playing in the World Cup, but they are certainly going to be one of the countries with the highest representation in Qatar. Every four years, football fans from across the globe come together for a month long festival to celebrate the sport as supporters of all colors and stripes make sure that they make the FIFA World Cup the greatest spectacle on earth and over 10,000 Israelis are expected to be a part of all of the action in Doha.
That being noted, of course, Israelis are not going to want to miss out regardless if the blue-and-white haven’t been the tournament since 1970 when it was held in Mexico. Sabras from around the Holy Land have traveled in droves to locales such as Russia, Brazil, South Africa and Germany over the past 18 years to be a part of the celebration and this year will be no different when the circus so to speak descends upon the Middle East and Qatar.
While Israel does not have diplomatic relations with the Persian Gulf State, Israelis will be permitted to enter the country and attend the games as are citizens from every nation in the world using a special FIFA Fan ID Hay’ya Card.
With a Fan ID in tow, thousands of Israelis are expected to make their way to Qatar over the course of the competition which opens up on Sunday November 20th all the way until the final game on December 18th for a total of 64 matches that will be played in 8 stadiums in the country with seven of them accessible by the state of the art metro.
The World Cup begins with group stage play where each of the 32 teams are placed into 8 groups of four with each team playing one another for a total of three games. The top two teams from each group them move onto the Round of 16 knockout stage where a win means you advance to the quarterfinals and a loss sends you back home. The one game knockout goes all the way through to the final where a champion will be crowned.
While Israelis who attend won’t be seeing their national team partake in the on field, many will be cheering for a country that may be near and dear to their heart due to either heritage or just because they enjoy their style of play.
To get to the core of why so many Israelis will be taking off time from anywhere from a few days for some, weeks for others a retirees for the entire tournament, The Jerusalem Post spoke to a number of Israelis who are about to embark on a journey unlike any other to Qatar and to perhaps the most unique World Cup in the history of the competition.
“Over the last 15 years, since 2008-09, there has been a huge shift in culture that has seen many Israelis travel to every type of sporting event abroad,” Daniel Shahak who is making his second trip to the World Cup explained. “Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic between 100,000 and 120,000 Israeli per year left Israel to see the UEFA Champions League, Barcelona, Real Madrid, basketball and the World Cup but most headed to Spain to see Lionel Messi in Barcelona which was roughly 70% of the market sports travel market from the country. Israel is an expensive country and people see that that there is better football to be a part in say a country like Spain and it’s less expensive, so they go abroad.”
The amount of Israelis going to the World Cup is enormous, Shahak continued, “At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Israel was the 11th largest ticket purchaser in the world and second among country’s that didn’t have a team in the competition. Think about that, Israelis travelled around the world in huge numbers for this. In Russia at the 2018 World Cup there were over 15,000 Israelis who travelled because it was fairly close.”
Shahak attended four games in Russia and will be taking in five in 6 days this time around in Qatar with a friend who he will be staying with in an apartment that was booked over a year ago. The real thrill for the resident of Palmachim will be to see his beloved Argentina play Saudi Arabia, “I’ve been a fan of Argentina since I was very young as my father’s family made Aliyah from Rosario where Messi and Angel Di Maria are from. I feel like I am at home when I am at their games.”
Shahak won’t be the only one traveling from Israel to see Argentina as 30-year old Sacha Vargas who made Aliyah from Argentina with his family when he was ten years old has saved up finances for this trip as he heads to the World Cup that will mark a number of firsts for him.
“I have never seen Messi live my entire life and I am actually going to see him now. I didn’t want to go to the PSG games in Israel when he was here twice over the past few months as it’s not my team and they are big rivals of my team Barcelona. I didn’t want to have to cheer for them and I just don’t like him playing there. The whole situation with his transfer was disturbing. But now I felt a sense of urgency because this may be the last chance to see him play for Argentina.”
Vargas is super excited and counting off the days until he heads out to Qatar at the end of the month and will see his Argentina play Poland, “I can’t describe in words how excited I am. I wanted to be able to do this my entire life and one of the first memories I have as a sports fan was watching the Argentina National Team. As one who grew up far from his homeland, an athlete like Messi was the connection to my Argentinian side. It’s really something amazing to think how crazy it will be as we walk to the stadium. I have been thinking about the walk, how we will all be jumping up and down and singing before the game.”
The atmosphere is unrivaled explained Hadar Segal who has been to many sporting events throughout the world and will be making his second trip to the World Cup.
“After I was in Moscow and I saw how amazing the atmosphere and experience was, I had to go to Qatar, it was truly phenomenal. I am addicted to sports and have been at so many sporting events, from Maccabi Tel Aviv winning the Euroleague in Milan, to Barcelona and huge tournaments in Israel and abroad, but the World Cup is the biggest event in the world. I met so many people from so many countries and this one will be the same.”
Segal, an England supporter from the days of David Beckham and Michael Owen, will be going alone but will meet up with friends in Qatar, made his arrangements to go just a couple of weeks ago through a local travel agent and feels that the start of the tournament is the best when the teams are still participating in the group stages.
“The group stages are the most fun because that is where all the fans are and all of the stadiums are close together which means everyone will be in a small area. The funny thing is that I never thought about the World Cup before Russia in 2018. I went because it was so close to Israel and not far away like the previous two in Brazil and South Africa. I was at three games there and it was just incredible. There were so many fans from so many countries.”
Shahak agreed that the best moments for fans are during the first couple of weeks of the competition which allows for supporters from countries around the world to meet up, share stories and time together.
“It’s a festival and carnival and there are people who are from all over the world. Japan, Egypt, United States and Iran. Everyone is there to celebrate sport together, watch football together, eat together and just enjoy each other’s company. I was with Moroccans, Iranians, Egyptians, Saudi Arabians in a stadium watching Argentina and we were all rooting for Messi.”
Michael Jankelowitz, who will be based in Doha for a little over a month, is slated to attend 21 games and will also be celebrating his 70th birthday in Qatar on the opening day of the World Cup.
“My first World Cup was in 1998 in France and the last time was in Sochi, Russia in 2018. This one in Qatar should not to be overlooked. Everything is in the radius of 65 miles and that is what makes it so special. At every other World Cup you can’t maximize the trip at minimum cost and that is what makes this unique, there are four games per day and you can pick two to attend. So it’s a very manageable World Cup. I will be at 21 games and I was able to get everything online at the beginning of the ticket sale. Since many Europeans are boycotting the competition there are still many tickets available on the FIFA App for group stage games.”
A world traveler, Jankelowitz will be making his third trip to Qatar and is a veteran so to speak compared to most Israelis who for them this will be three first trip to the country, “Last year I was in Doha for the Arab Cup and the first time was for the FIFA Club World Cup. Six stadiums of teh 8 were in use for the Arab Cup as the biggest facility wasn’t yet completed and everything worked perfectly, so much so, the stadiums even have air conditioning under the seats! Everything is state of the art and they have invested billions to make this World Cup a success.”
Qatar will want to put a show on for the world especially as they have been under the scrutiny of human rights violations and for the fans that will be attending the atmosphere is the number one reason explained Jankelowitz.
“The atmosphere, there is nothing like seeing a sporting event live and in person. When you go to the stadium you feel the vibe of the spectators and going to the World Cup you get to see the best of international football. If one is able to, then go for it, no matter what the sport. Nothing beats being at the stadium and being part of the sensation.”
Shahak’s wife, a professional singer, who will stay home had reservations about him going to a country that does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, but ultimately gave in to his love for sports and even knows some of the Argentina songs as well.
“The tournament is not just going to the games, but it is also everything around the game, the signing, the dancing, talking to people about the games that were and with other people who may be around. The Fanzone is a place where everyone gets together and you can be there all day just meeting people and watching football on the big screens. It’s an incredible experience.”