Tag Archives: Israel

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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The Pioneering Andy Ram

In February, Israeli women’s tennis player Shahar Peer was denied a visa by the United Arab Emirates and thus could not play in the Dubai Tennis Championships. A week later–thanks mostly to intense international outcry over the Peer incident–Andy Ram became the first Israeli athlete to compete in the UAE, which has no diplomatic relationship with Israel. At the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships, Ram lost in the first round and played under extraordinarily heavy security. From a USA Today piece:

Fifteen bodyguards met him at the airport. The six rooms surrounding his hotel suite were blocked off. Two bodyguards stood watch in front of his door, and another kept sentry in the garden outside. He was not allowed to leave his hotel except to go to the tournament site, and he was shuttled in different vehicles … During his opening match, Ram was escorted by two bodyguards and arrived from a different entrance than other players. Fans left belongings outside the court and entered through metal detectors. A bodyguard stood behind his changeover chair. Ram said he also had his own locker room and was not allowed to enter the players’ lounge.

Despite the inconveniences and, one must imagine, the palpable tension and fear, Ram says he’ll return to the UAE next year. That’s to his immense credit, and perhaps this is a belated step toward letting the athletes play their games regardless of political climate. As Ram correctly observes, he did more than momentarily overcome Israeli-Arab-Pan-Arab hostilities:

“I don’t know if I’m happy that I’m the first one in this situation, but I was the first Israeli to play in (the Persian Gulf),” Ram said. “It’s going to open the door for many other athletes, not only Israelis in Dubai but a player from China who wants to play in Taipei or a guy from Serbia who wants to go to Croatia.”

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Justice Served

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Get it? “Served”? In a post about tennis? Truly, “Headless Body in Topless Bar” has nothing on this one …

Anyhow, remember that some local officials in Sweden ordered the Sweden-Israel Davis Cup matches to be played before an empty arena because of the threat of Islamist terrorism? Well, that’s precisely what happened. And Israel responded by pulling off a stunning comeback and advancing to the World Group quarterfinals for just the second time in history.

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Shame on Sweden

So the Muslim community in Malmo, Sweden is set to protest–perhaps violently–the Israeli tennis team when they take on Sweden in the upcoming Davis Cup. The response of skittish city officials? Hold the match in an empty stadium. Quite honestly, the last time I remember something like this happening was 1981 in the politically riven city of Memphis …

In any event, this is a shameful capitulation on the part of Malmo city leaders. The Israeli athletes deserve better, and the extremist elements in Swedish society deserve not the slightest accommodation.

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