For soccer fans, the World Cup in Qatar is a big deal even if Israel is not competing. For the rest of us, not so much. But this year’s World Cup became a big deal for the rest of us when videos began emerging from Qatar showing the horrid treatment our sports reporters are receiving from FIFA fans from Middle Eastern countries and Brazil.
It has been so extreme, and our reporters' attempts to prove that they are ‘good’ Israelis (living in Tel Aviv and being pro-peace) did not calm any of the vicious verbal attacks. This led some of them, finally, to tell people they were from Ecuador just so they could have a decent conversation about soccer.
A breath of fresh air was provided by the positive and happy interactions between Uri Levi and Iranian fans celebrating after their win. We did not see videos, and therefore have no evidence, of the existence of more moderate and polite interactions between our reporters and FIFA fans from other countries.
Was it always like this at World Cup competitions?
To find out, I spoke with George Borda on the phone. Borda was on the national team that competed at the only World Cup games in which Israel participated – Mexico 1970.
Despite his successful soccer career as a forward, Borda is not a name that immediately comes to mind when you think about Israeli soccer if you are not an avid soccer fan. But here is a bit of trivia: Borda was the subject of discussion in the Knesset after he was fired from his job for taking ‘too much’ time off work for training sessions. This resulted in a law compelling employers to allow time off for training for those playing in leagues in any sport.
I first asked Borda about the Israeli experience in Mexico and then we talked a bit about his background.
Question: First, let us set up the scene: you were at the World Cup games but you sat out all the games on the bench. That gave you an experience of the fans in the bleachers that you would not have had if you had been on the field. Do you agree?
I was on the roster but was taken off. One player went to Emmanuel Scheffer (the coach) and requested he not let me play because he was afraid I would be better than him, scoring more goals and maybe take his glory. I am one who plays, not one who yells, not one who has politics rather than football in mind like some others. Mordechai Spiegler wanted everyone to pass him the ball and wanted to score the goals by himself. Many good players didn’t play because of Spiegler and it wasn’t just because he had power or was a better soccer player; it was because Scheffer was weak.
Scheffer sat with me and told me how to play: to pass to Spiegler. After that, because I didn't comply, Spiegler went to Scheffer’s room and told him not to let me play. Figures, I was quite aggressive after that incident and Spiegler didn’t train once during the month we were in Mexico because I threatened I would break his legs and Scheffer ceased to exist for me after the World Cup.
Question: You are clearly not one to fool around with. So now, tell me what you could feel among the crowd in the bleachers behind you.
There were fans supporting us in the bleachers. But they cheered quietly and you could see that they felt threatened and a bit fearful. They did not cheer loudly or freely.
Question: What was it like for you and your team in Mexico? Did you feel comfortable at the games?
We didn’t go outside the compound at night after 17:00. We were told that there was a rumor about a potential attack against us. We were a bit afraid. Well, a lot afraid. The police and the army guarded us.
Once we got that announcement, we began to walk around less even during the day.
Question: What are your thoughts when you see how Israeli sports journalists are being treated in Qatar?
I don’t know what to tell you. I am angry and ashamed that we begin to be afraid without reason. Why should they be afraid? Compared to Qatar, what happened in Mexico was worse, a lot worse.
I am too extremist in this regard [chuckles]. I think we have to show more strength. We are too gentle. We don’t have to be so gentle.
Soon we will be afraid to walk on our own streets. They would treat us differently – just like in soccer -- when you show you are strong, they respond to you differently.
My attitude comes from our history in Germany, from the Holocaust. When the Germans came at us, killing our people, and we sat quietly as if all is okay and just 'took it'. I don’t accept that.
Question: How would you respond if you were in Qatar now and treated the way our reporters are being treated?
I would not be violent if they are just talking, I would have turned and gone away. There are more of them than us so we can’t do anything and we have to be smart. We can’t respond violently in that situation even if we want to. I do have to say, we wish for peace, sadly, it seems others have other intentions.
Question: You mention Germany, you were born in Italy and you were named after King George. Can you tell me something about that?
I was born in 1944 in a concentration camp in Italy. When I was a few days old, my family was put on a train and sent to Bergen-Belsen. Before they could march us to the gas chambers, the British rescued us. I was named after King George because the British saved our lives. I was the fifth of ten children.
We arrived in Israel when I was four years old. I have no memories of my own from Europe but I grew up on the story of how the Germans almost put us in the gas chambers. I can't recall it having had an impact on me as a child but as an adult, I think about it and about how the English saved us one day before the gas. Just a few moments more and I probably would not be here to tell my story. I do try not to think about it too much though..
Question: When did you start playing soccer:
I was about 9 or 10 when I played on a children’s soccer team and I played continuously until the army, in the army, and afterward. I loved it, loved training, I never stopped playing.
Question: Who had the most influence on you as a soccer player?
Before my army service, the late David Schweitzer coached Hapoel Tel Aviv. He would teach me what to do on the field, how to play better, how to be a better version of myself, and he would correct my mistakes. After he saw that I had learned well, he gave me the freedom to do what I wanted on the field. He trusted me, and from there he took me to the national team.