How an Israeli should back the World Cup

Tell me this is a piece of satire in the Jerusalem Post but I fear it is not:

After the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 49 years in riveting fashion on Wednesday, and with the Lakers-Celtics series wrapping up soon in the NBA Finals, soccer’s World Cup tournament that begins Friday in South Africa will be the focus of the sporting world for the next month.

Israelis are known as rabid soccer fans, even though the country’s national team has only made the tournament once – in 1970 – and even then scored only one goal.

Headlines here that have been dominated recently by sanctions on Iran and the Gaza flotilla are now expected to be devoted to conflicts on the playing field.

But as Israelis, when times are as tough for the Jewish state internationally as they are now, which of the 32 teams that made the tournament can you support?

First of all, in this semi-satirical overview, the good news: The Turks, whose Islamic fundamentalist wannabe martyrs tried to kill Israeli soldiers aboard the Mavi Marmara last Monday, did not make the tournament. The sanctimonious Swedes and Norwegians thankfully won’t be there, either.

Since it’s easier to decide who to root against than whom to cheer, let’s start with the teams that no self-respecting Israeli can support.

Brazil, in cooperation with the Turks, initiated a proposal that could have facilitated the nuclearization of Iran, voted with the Turks against Wednesday’s UN sanctions, and recently treated visiting Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad like a king.

Five Israelis were attacked in Madrid on Monday, and Israeli gays were told to stay away from the city’s gay pride parade. So, no support for Spain.

South Korea downgraded this week’s visit to the country by President Shimon Peres, and the protests against him were particularly nasty – so it’s out, too.

Israelis won’t be cheering for North Korea, which built a Syrian nuclear facility, or Algeria, for obvious reasons. Germany remains Iran’s largest-trading partner, and a massive 20-billion-euro Swiss gas deal with Iran should prevent Israelis from backing Switzerland, which hosts the notoriously anti-Israel UN Human Rights Council.

There are many reasons not to root for England; from its attempt to prosecute opposition leader Tzipi Livni, its deputy prime minister’s support for banning weapons sales to Israel, it being the home of Israel boycotter Elvis Costello, and its recent expulsion of a Mossad official due to his alleged role in facilitating the use of British passports to kill a mega-terrorist.

Australia also expelled a Mossad official for the same reason. Nearby New Zealand suspended high-level relations with Israel after the Mossad allegedly misused its passports in 2004, and last month outlawed kosher ritual slaughtering of animals.

Honduras has a large Palestinian population. Paraguay sheltered many Nazis, including Joseph Mengele, after the Holocaust. The Ivory Coast is 60% Muslim.

France, Japan, Portugal and Greece are known for outbreaks of anti-Semitism, and – a genuine soccer-related grievance – the Greek team finished ahead of Israel’s in their qualifying group, ending Israel’s World Cup hopes. Some Israelis will never forgive the Uruguayan team for defeating Israel’s World Cup team 40 years ago.

In the aftermath of the flotilla raid, South Africa recalled its ambassador to Israel for consultations, so any Israeli who considered backing the home team of Human Rights Council Gaza report author Richard Goldstone will hold back.

Besides South Africa, World Cup countries that voted for the council’s decision to authorize a probe of the raid included Argentina (whose coach Diego Maradona has made anti-Israel statements), Brazil, Chile, Ghana, Mexico, Nigeria, Slovenia and Uruguay, so Israelis cannot support their teams, either.

But the real test of friendship with Israel was the Human Rights Council’s vote to endorse the Goldstone commission report. Six of those same countries voted against Israel, with Mexico, Slovenia and Uruguay abstaining, along with World Cup teams Cameroon, Japan and South Korea. France and the UK declined to vote. Slovakia voted against the Goldstone report, but abstained on the flotilla vote.

The only World Cup countries that voted in Israel’s favor on both key issues were the United States, Italy and the Netherlands.

The Dutch government elected this week is expected to be more pro-Israel than its predecessor, just like the Italian government is.

But Italian president Silvio Berlusconi compared Gazans to Holocaust victims on a recent trip to Ramallah.

So that leaves the United States and the Netherlands, and Denmark and Serbia, which are not on the council and protected their Jews during the Holocaust, as possible countries to support. Given Serbia’s dubious human rights record and ties to Iran, that leaves just three.

Still, Israel Radio analyst Hanan Crystal, who is an expert on both Israeli politics and soccer, said the days of Israelis deciding what team to support based on the geopolitical situation are long gone. He said Israelis once backed France when it was the Jewish state’s main benefactor, and rooted for Western European teams against Eastern European team during the Cold War, but it doesn’t work that way anymore.

“Israelis root for a variety of teams for many reasons, and politics is no longer one of them,” Crystal said. “I think that means we have matured.”

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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