Israel Soccer’s Raw Deal

After a crushing loss to Greece, it’s almost certain that Israel will once again fail to qualify for the World Cup. Israel is by no means a soccer power, but their qualifying road is harder than it should be.

For years, Israel competed within the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) because doing so made perfect geographic sense. Israel is, after all, an Asian nation. Eventually, though, Arab states hostile to Israel, starting with Kuwait at the 1974 Asian Games, refused to take the pitch against them. Rather than award forfeit victories to Israel, the AFC capitulated and expelled Israel from Asian football. As a consequence, the Israeli national team was–to borrow the obvious yet fitting metaphor–forced to wander the soccer wilderness for years.

In the 1980s, this led to the absurdity of having Israel compete in the Oceania qualifying group against distant countries like Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji. Finally, in the early 1990s, Israel became a member of UEFA, which meant toiling against the august European powers of the sport. And those are Israel’s unenviable straits today.

For the 2010 qualifiers, FIFA placed Israel in a group with Greece (FIFA world ranking: 19), Switzerland (22), Latvia (71), Moldova (98), and Luxembourg (121). Had Israel not been exiled from the Asian football circuit–where they logically belong–they’d be presently competing with AFC Group A teams like Australia (ranking: 32), Japan (35), Bahrain (67), Uzbekistan (74), and Qatar (87); or AFC Group B teams like Iran (42), South Korea (44), Saudi Arabia (55), North Korea (107), and UAE (116). Israel, who’s ranked 18th, would’ve had a measurably easier route to the World Cup had they been allowed to compete on their own continent.

If nothing else, the Israeli athletes deserve a fairer shake.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Israel Soccer’s Raw Deal

  1. Not with you on this one. Yeah, the actions of the Islamic nations in Asia is, um, *problematic*, but being stuck in Europe isn’t all downside. Turkey is mostly Asian, but happy to be in Europe for instance. It seems reasonable that, by being in Europe, Israel’s players are more visible to European club teams. It also seems reasonable that due to playing tougher competition, Israel’s raised their game — being ranked #18 in the world is pretty remarkable for a country with only 7.2 million citizens (it’d be interesting to know what they would’ve been ranked back in the pre-1974 AFC days).

    In terms of road trips, Tel Aviv to Luxembourg (the furthest they’ll travel in their UEFA qualifying) is 1,908 miles (about the same as LA to Chicago :)).

    Asia Group A would-be travel: 8,821 miles to Sydney, 5,701 mi. to Tokyo, 2,001 mi. to Tashkent.

    Asia Group B: 5,027 mi. to Seoul, 4,923 mi. to Pyongyang.

    And aside from the fact that the geographical division between Europe and Asia is a little arbitrary in the first place, it’s not like there aren’t other for-convenience rearrangements among FIFA’s “continental” associations. Frex, the non-soccer countries in South America (Guyana, Suriname, French Guyana) all play in CONCACAF because CONMEBOL doesn’t want to waste their time with them (and because they’re arguably more culturally similar to Caribbean countries than they are to South American — which could be argued for Israel in Europe as well).

    Assuming FIFA rankings have any validity whatsoever, it seems like the bigger issue has to do with the number of World Cup slots not allotted to Europe. When Asia has zero countries ranked in the top 30, but is given 4.5 spots, yet Israel, Greece, and Switzerland — top-30 all — are competing against each other for 1.44, then that seems a little off-kilter. (Of course it’s dangerous to assume that FIFA rankings have any validity whatsoever.)

    Um — IMHO.

  2. daynperry

    Excellent comment. I guess it comes down to whether you’d rather have a better shot at qualifying for the WC or get better through better competition and audition your players for the top European leagues. For me, it goes back to the fact that Israel, as far as I know, didn’t want to leave the AFC in the first place.

    Btw, what do you think of Altidore?

  3. I’ve always wondered whether the US would be better off in UEFA — of course, I suppose playing Faeroe Islands in qualification wouldn’t be any more glamorous than playing Grenada. But still, CONCACAF doesn’t exactly stretch us much. And Israel got a tough draw.

    Love Jozy, hope he’s the striker we’ve never had before — he makes Brian Ching look like a reasonable selection up top and anything that keeps Donovan and Dempsey in the midfield has to be a good thing. Wish he got playing time at Xerez, can’t quite figure out why Villareal loaned him out to a team that was going to sit him the whole time. Hopefully he pans out and then the US can be within five players of being competitive…

  4. Joh

    I don’t think Israel got a raw deal every other country that had a choice between UEFA and the AFC (i.e. Turkey, Cyrpus and the former Soviet countries in Asia) joined UEFA. Kazahstan even voluntarily left the AFC to join UEFA.

    FIFA rankings are usually wildly inaccurate as a comparision between the relative strengths of teams, especially when comparing teams in different confederations. Israel undoubtedly would have a much easier time qualifying from the AFC, but they certainly would not be guaranteed qualification as their ranking would suggest. South Korea, Japan, Australia are all better sides than Israel.

    The real benefit of being in UEFA for Isreal is the club competitions in UEFA far by far the best in the World and by far the most lucrative and also bring higher exposure to the Israeli League. Also Israeli players benefit from playing against better players in club competitions and World Cup and European Championship qualifying (which is even more difficult than World Cup qualifying).

    There’s a real (for an optimist anyway) prospect now that if Israel withdraws from the land it has occupied since the six-day war it will have nromalized relationships with it’s neighbours as per the Saudi peace plan. In that eventuality there would be no bar to it rejoining AFC, but there is zero chance of that happening (re-joining the AFC I mean) as whilst it’s national team wouldn’t mind playing in the AFC World Cup qualifying group, there is no way it’s clubs would give up their places in the UEFA Champion’s League and the Europa Cup.

    • Josh Thomas

      No chance that Australia and Japan are better teams than Israel. Israel would have qualified last year and this year as well if they where in the AFC. Your are inconsiderate if you think otherwise.

  5. Aussie Joe from Braeside

    Israel would be right up there if it were still in the A.F.C.

    They were tough to beat at home in the 1980s when still in Oceania when we had to play them. We have improved a lot, but they have too.

    My guess would be Israel would qualify 100 % within the top 4, top 2 probably for most of the last 30 years. Whether they would be number one is tough to tell.

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