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Op-Ed: Mad About Soccer in Israel

Why are Israelis nuts about soccer, when they should be focusing on existensial threats or at least thinking about how to become a genuine Light Unto the Nations?
Published: Sunday, June 13, 2010 12:08 PM


Yesterday afternoon in Israel, the land was abuzz. In a country that is still embroiled in an international witch-hunt over its involvement in the Gaza flotilla affair, a land which lies under short and mid-range missile threats by some of its neighbors and a looming long-range nuclear threat by others, was it national security or world PR that everyone was talking about?

Of course not. It was the U.S. - England World Cup soccer match.

"Do you think the U.S. has a shot?" said one thirty-year-old father into his cellphone, as the stars came out over a Jerusalem playground last night.

"The U.S. has a strong team and have come a long way," said another to me, over a Shabbat lunch yesterday.

"I've joined a pickup tournament at my office over who will win," my host boasted. "Everyone puts in 50 shekel, and the winner gets 80% of the bets, second place gets 20%. Everyone one else loses."

"Who did you bet will win the Cup?" I asked.

"We only bet on the next games," said my host, who works at a Tel Aviv hi-tech firm. "I figure I stand to win 800 shekel. And hey, even if I lose, I get to network with lots of people in my company. It's worth it just for that."

Why is a country that is so fraught with existential issues so glued to the screen when it comes to a tournament for which it hasn't even qualified? Why do the major newspapers, Maariv and Yediot (not to mention the local papers) devote a major part of their front section to soccer every day? Why are there hours upon hours of weekly soccer broadcasting on the nation-wide radio stations: Kol Yisrael, Reshet Bet, and Galei Tzahal?

Why is it that when I walk down the street of my home town of Rimonim on a Saturday night, the only sounds I hear (from a normally quiet community) are the sudden roars of joy or groans of loss as a goal is score on the dozens of television sets (which are on high volume) inside homes and on several porches throughout the town?

For many in Israel, soccer approaches the status of a religion. Of course, Israel is not alone. Europeans and South Americans are known for their fanatically devoted legions of soccer fans. In fact, the riots and violence that sometimes break out in Israeli stadiums are minor compared to what occurs frequently in other locales.

One would expect more from a people who's daily lives are so affected by security and politics, or from a People
Instead of being bashed and beaten for IDF actions, they can play as equals and even sometimes cheered for in the European basketball league...
who have such a rich heritage that goes so far beyond sports.

But maybe that's just the thing. Maybe Israelis, with all the trouble they have on the world stage and in their own back (and sometimes front) yards, need soccer as an outlet, an escape, a promise of something better. Sports, after all, are a way for conflicts to be resolved in a relatively peaceful and entertaining manner. The soccer field, in many ways, can be a substitute for more violent drives, a more peaceful battlefield, a way to divert all that harmful energy into harmless fun.

Israelis see sports as their ticket towards international acceptance. Instead of being bashed and beaten for IDF actions, they can play as equals and even sometimes cheered for in the European basketball league (where Israel's Maccabi Tel Aviv has won titles in recent years), compete in the Olympics (where Israel has garnered windsurfing and judo medals), win Tennis doubles and singles tournaments (like in the case of Israel's Andy Ram and Yoni Ehrlich, and Shachar Pe'er), or try time and time again (only once successfully) to enter the highest competition in the eyes of many - the World Cup, or the 'Mondial' as Israeli's call it.

Israelis' devotion to sports and to soccer in particular, is an undeniable fact. The only remaining question is - does it go too far? Should Israelis be focusing on more meaningful pastimes that perhaps could help the world more? Is this how we should become the Light Unto the Nations - by earning medals and winning tournaments?

The Rambam (Maimonides) advocated physical exercise as a means of maintaining physical and mental health. Perhaps Israel's soccer craze can at least keep our citizens in shape, a value unto itself. But the Rambam also advocated balance in human traits and behavior. Clearly, here, Israelis can learn a lesson. Just as the soccer player, to succeed, must have good balance, so I suggest that the average Israeli should temper his love of the game with a healthy focus on other things too: his family, his tradition, and his People.

Israel may indeed further its destiny of becoming a Light Unto the Nations by eventually winning the World Cup, but it is my hope that such a win would be not the be all and end all, but rather just the beginning of something greater.