Middle-East's foothold in Europe: Football can show the way to Israeli society

Political pressures at national and club level are never far away in Israeli football but, as Glenn Moore discovers, the game itself is a force for change in a complex nation
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The first question for anyone charting the geography of England's erratic progress towards Euro 2008 is "why it does it have to detour via Tel Aviv?" If Israel are in Uefa, European football's governing body, then why not Lebanon, or Syria, both of whom are nearer the continent's traditional boundaries?

The answer, as it is to many issues in Israel, is politics. Israel used to be in the Asian Federation, as are the rest of the countries of the Middle East, but were cast out in the Seventies due to pressure from the rising Arab bloc. They then became an associate member of Oceania before being accepted into Uefa in 1992.

This nomadic existence has ultimately benefited Israel. Uefa is the strongest footballing federation, Asia the weakest after Oceania. Regular contact with European teams, by club and country, has improved Israeli football and made it more attractive to sponsors and investors. The national team are now a competent one, not to be underrated, the club game is improving, and Israeli football's power-brokers increasingly influential. Chief among these is Pini Zahavi, the superagent, who should need little introduction.

Football in the region has always had to bend to political circumstance. Organised football began in 1928, when the area was still under the British Mandate. The first league champions, in 1932, were British Police. Two years later an all-Jewish team, playing under the name of Palestine, entered the 1934 Word Cup losing to Egypt in qualifying.

It was not until 1970 that Israel would reach the finals and by then the political question had intervened: in qualifying North Korea followed the lead of Arab countries in previous campaigns and refused to play them. Israel did well in Mexico, drawing with Italy and Sweden with Mordechai Spiegler, who later played for New York Cosmos, scoring their lone goal.

The team then drifted from region to region - they are the only country to have played World Cup qualifiers in every continent - before settling in Europe. Since then their game has steadily improved with players such as Ronny Rosenthal, Eyal Berkovic, Haim Revivo, Yossi Benayoun and Ben Haim following the lead of Spiegler and Avi Cohen, the former Liverpool and Rangers defender.

In 1994 Israel defeated France in Paris and in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup they were unbeaten in a group including France, Ireland and Switzerland. A surfeit of draws cost them qualification.

That campaign was notable for the impact made by Arab Israeli players. Racism is a major problem in Israeli football with Arab Israelis bearing the brunt. Home games played at Beitar Jerusalem, one of the leading clubs, would reverberate to 10,000, the entire crowd, chanting "death to the Arabs" and calling Arab players "suicide bomber" and "terrorist".

Matches between Beitar and Bnei Sakhnin, the Arab club who played Newcastle United in the Uefa Cup in 2004, are regularly accompanied by violence.

However, in 2005, in successive qualifying games against Ireland and France, Abbas Suan, then Walid Badir, both Arabs, scored late equalisers. The subsequent headline in a Hebrew newspaper read: "Non-Jews mean goals".

Badir, who played for Wimbledon, and once scored against Manchester United at Old Trafford, has tended to keep his head down but Suan, who has played for Bnei Sakhnin, is more prominent. He is well aware of being a standard bearer noting: "It is a big thing for our people when Arabs play in the national team." He dedicated his goal against Ireland to his "Jewish brothers" and has said: "I think it's very important for the whole country to know how to practice coexistence."

The achievements of Badir, who is expected to play against England on Saturday, Suan, who will not because of injury, and another Arab in the squad, Salim Tuama, who scored against Rangers in the Uefa Cup, have made the climate easier for such groups as the New Israel Fund.

A human rights organisation, NIF has been campaigning against racism in Israeli football assisted by the FA and the UK's Kick It Out initiative.

Itzik Shanan, the head of communications, says: "Football in Israel mirrors society, it reflects the anxieties, hopes and challenges Israel is going through. Racism is primarily directed against Arabs and it is not something which will be uprooted easily. But in the last couple of years we have helped get a new law passed banning racist chanting in stadiums. People can be sent to prison for two years and there have been some well-publicised arrests. The mass chanting we used to hear at Beitar has declined, perhaps because they are winning, but also because of this law."

As with other Israeli clubs Beitar's political allegiance goes way back. The club developed out of the militaristic youth section of a Zionist nationalist movement during the Mandate period and many players were linked with resistance groups. In the 1940s several were arrested and exiled, returning after the state of Israel was formed in 1948.

Beitar's association with the political right has continued. The current Israeli premier, Ehud Olmert, though more centrist now, was a Beitar member as a young man and is a dedicated follower of Beitar Jerusalem.

"Football can show the way to Israeli society," added Shanan. "It may be the only workplace where Jews and Arabs share the same conditions and salaries. It shows people from different backgrounds can work together." Except at Beitar. "They are the only team who do not have an Israeli Arab player," said Shanan.

The club is now owned by the complex and controversial Russian-born billionaire Arcady Gaydamak. The father of the Portsmouth owner, Alexandre Gaydamak, he is wanted in France on suspicion of involvement in arms trading and money laundering. Gaydamak is suspected of seeing football as a passport to political influence. Two days after buying control of Beitar he donated $400,000 to Bnei Sakhnin. He then pledged to sign an Arab Israeli player but backed down under pressure from Beitar fans.

"He was trying to set an example but did not have the guts to take the hard decision," lamented Shanan. Gaydamak has recently set up a new political party, Social Justice.

Beitar are not the only club with political ties. The Hapoel clubs, the most notable of which are based in Tel Aviv and Haifa, are traditionally associated with the left: Hapoel means "worker". The clubs often attract Arab support. Then there are the Maccabi clubs, these are less overtly political being associated with the Maccabi movement, a 112-year-old sports, cultural, social and educational organisation, and Maccabi Haifa, for instance, attract many Arab Israeli fans.

Maccabi Haifa are the champions but Beitar Jerusalem are leading the Ligat ha'Al at present, in large part due to Gaydamak's investment. At the beginning of the season he appointed Ossie Ardiles as manager but the Argentine was soon sacked and replaced by an Israeli, Yossi Mizrahi.

All clubs in the league, which was ranked 18th in Uefa's last co-efficient list, between the Bulgarian and Norwegian leagues, are allowed five foreign players, the best of which tend to be Ghanaian. They are acutely aware that Ayegbeni Yakubu went from Nigeria to England via Israel. Six of the current squad play outside Israel.

Besides the Premiership quartet (Tal Ben Haim, Benayoun, Ben Sahar and Idan Tal, who is suspended for the England game), goalkeeper Dudu Aouate is at Deportivo La Coruña and forward Pini Balili plays in Turkey. Leading striker Roberto Colautti, an Italian who is naturalised through marriage, is also suspended on Saturday.

There is another national team operating in Israeli territory, Palestine. Following the formation of the Palestinian Authority they have played internationals under special licence from Fifa.

Palestine are in the Asian confederation, played qualifiers for the last World Cup and have risen from 191st to 126th in the Fifa rankings (Israel are 38th, England sixth). This is impressive, given they play their home games in Qatar, usually train in Egypt, have no domestic league and frequently have to omit players because of Israeli travel restrictions.

One player, Tariq al Quto, has even been killed in the conflict, allegedly by the Israeli Defence Force, others have had their houses destroyed, as was the main stadium in Gaza. Fifa are financing its rebuilding while players from the Palestinian diaspora, especially from Chile, have strengthened the team.

Jewish émigrés are also taking an interest in the game back home. Gaydamak is one of several foreign investors and Roman Abramovich has been linked with buying Hapoel Tel Aviv.

Should he do so the middle-man may well be Zahavi. The influence on the Premiership of the superagent is further evidence that while Israel may be on the fringe of the European game, it is no longer on the outside.

Teenage striker Tamuz ends citizenship protest for the chance to tackle England

The biggest threat to England is likely to come from a teenager who initially refused to play on Saturday in protest at not being granted Israeli citizenship.

Toto Tamuz is a 19-year-old striker with the potential to be playing alongside, not against, the likes of Rio Ferdinand in a few years, which is one reason why he called off his one-man strike.

Tamuz is the son of Clement Temile, a former Nigerian international, who now coaches Kentish Town FC in the Spartan South Midlands League but briefly earned a living playing in Israel. He brought Toto with him but, as a toddler, the boy went to live with an Israeli team-mate. He then moved in with Orit Tamuz, an Israeli woman who brought him up and informally adopted him. The reasons for these moves are unclear but his natural parents are believed to have experienced financial problems before departing from Israel a few years later.

Toto Tamuz, meanwhile, grew up speaking Hebrew and his assimilation into the country was helped by a prodigious football talent. He was capped at Under-19 and Under-21 level by Israel leading the latter side to this summer's European Championships.

Signed by Beitar Jerusalem he continued to progress and is the leading scorer in Israel. In September, he was called up by the national side and marked his debut, against Andorra, with a goal. But, having not been formally registered as a child, in Nigeria or Israel, he has been playing under special dispensation from football's world governing body, Fifa, having only been granted temporary residence.

In January his residency expired and he applied to be granted full citizenship. Tamuz was turned down despite 40,000 signing a petition on his behalf. He then refused to play for Israel and missed last month's friendly against Ukraine. But to show his commitment Tamuz rejected interest from Nigeria, under their new coach, Berti Vogts.

Ultimately, the prospect of playing against England, with the accompanying exposure to Premiership scouts, was just too tempting. Last week he accepted a laissez passer, permitting temporary residence, and began the three-year process of applying for citizenship.

"Wearing the national team strip will be the greatest experience," Tamuz said. "I have really missed it."

Israeli players in England

Avi Nimni

Loaned to Derby County from November 1999 until March 2000. He is the highest-ever scorer for Maccabi Tel-Aviv netting 162 league goals. His shirt will be retired with him at the end of the season.

Eyal Berkovic

Played for West Ham, Celtic, Blackburn, Manchester City and Southampton between 1996 and 2005 and scored 34 goals in Britain. In 2006 he retired in Israel and has since managed Maccabi Netanya.

David Pisanti

Played for QPR between 1987 and 1989, making 22 appearances for the club. Is considered to be one of the best left-sided defenders Israel have ever had.

Ronny Rosenthal

Played for Luton Town, Liverpool, Tottenham and Watford between 1990-1999 and scored 33 goals from 112 appearances as a forward.

Tal Ben Haim

He has thus far appeared 77 times for Bolton and scored seven goals.

Yossi Benayoun

Signed by West Ham in July 2005 for £2.5m and has so far made 50 appearances.

Avi Cohen

Signed from Maccabi Tel Aviv for a fee of £200,000, he made 24 appearances as a defender for Liverpool between 1979 and 1981 before being released from the club in November 1981

Ben Sahar

The 17-year-old striker was a £320,000 signing for Chelsea from Hapoel Tel Aviv in 2006, the same year that he became Israel's youngest-ever international.