On Sunday, the Israel football team will take to the pitch in Kosovo, for the first of four European Championship qualifier games in ten days. At stake is Israel’s first real chance of qualifying to a major tournament in more than 50 years. In an ideal world, one would say that the odds are pretty good. Israel is trailing only five points behind first place Romania with two games missing, and competes with rivals which are more or less equal to it.
Reality, however, couldn’t be further away from ideal. Instead of playing the last two games of the series in front of a packed home stadium, the matches will be played in neutral Hungary. The biggest star and prospect of Israel’s current squad, Tottenham winger Manor Solomon, is sidelined due to injury, and most of the players have not been in regular training and competitive game routine for over a month.
On top of that, the boiling tensions and suspicions between the different factions in Israeli society have not missed out on the football team. To understand the current situation, it is useful to look back at the events that served as a prelude to the current war.
Rewind to April and May 2021. The situation in Israel was escalating on all fronts, with Gaza, the West Bank, the terror organizations in Lebanon, and with the Arab citizens of Israel. At the peak of the turmoil, Munas Dabbur, one of the leading Israeli footballers of the current generation, decided to post a picture of Al Aqsa mosque on his 124K follower Instagram account, with a quote from the Quran: “God will pay the lawless men.” All hell broke loose.
The hate comments started amassing, and the striker deleted the post quickly, but it was too late. The fire was set, and Dabbur was canceled by local football fans. This isn’t to be taken for granted. The country doesn’t have a wealth of players with years of success in top level European Football, and Dabbur, having played for Grasshoppers, Red Bull Salzburg, Sevilla, and Hoffenheim, is the highest scoring Israeli in foreign leagues.
Despite fan hate, Dabbur was still called up, and played 12 more matches for Israel. But he was booed every time he touched the ball during home games, even after he scored. Eventually he fell short with his team mates, until he announced his retirement from international football in July 2022.
In between, the tension continued surfacing. After a wave of terror attacks, one of the most influential Israeli players, Eran Zahavi, wrote in the national team’s WhatsApp group, which includes Arab players, that he is disappointed that none of them use their influence and reach to condemn the attacks.
Demanding condemnation has been a tool to test the loyalty of Arabs, which has been questioned ever since the country’s formation in 1948. Like many other processes, this phenomena surfaced on steroids since 7th October. A recent example is Mohamed Abo Fani. In the first couple of weeks, the Israel and Ferencvaros midfielder came under scrutiny by wives and girlfriends of his former Maccabi Haifa teammates for staying silent.
In response, he wrote on Instagram: “Let it be clear that I condemn all of the events that took place in Israel over the past week as a human being! Not as an Arab or any other status, but as a person who wants peace without difference of religion, race, and gender. The images I saw, the harming of innocent people, hurt me a lot. Every time there is such an event, Arabs are requested to condemn as if we’re responsible, and that’s unacceptable. Thank you to all the wives of different footballers who supported and spread hate towards me and my family … “
Judging by comment sections and social media, Abo Fani’s message was too vague. The fact that he wouldn’t call out Hamas specifically for the atrocities, or said that he clearly stands with Israel, felt to people like he was paying lip service and nothing more.
This is an extremely complicated situation for the Arabs, who are torn between the country of which they are citizens and their national identity. Some of them have relatives in the West Bank and Gaza. On the other hand, given past events of participation and support of terror attacks by Arab-Israelis, the suspicion from the Jewish population is also understandable.
Israelis want to hear more voices like that of Bebras Natcho, a Circassian Muslim and up until March, the captain of the national team. A few days after the massacre, Natcho shared on his Instagram that “when people lose their humanity in the name of my beloved religion, I can no longer remain silent. God sees everything, don’t forget that.”
Abo Fani is one of three Arab players who have been called up to the squad by Manager and ex-Watford player, Alon Hazan. The fact that none of the games will be played on Israeli soil, means they will avoid standing the test of the local fans. Whether or not they are accepted by local fans will remain a question mark for now.
But there have also been positive developments following the situation. This is a time in which differences need to be put aside, and leading figures in Israeli football are trying to set an example. Zahavi, Israeli national team’s all time top scorer, was not a part of the campaign so far.
He fell short with the ex-Liverpool, Chelsea, and Arsenal player, Yossi Benayoun, who is now in the role of Israeli Football Association General Manager. Before the campaign, Benayoun decided on a policy that no one sleeps in a private hotel room when the team comes together, which Zahavi, at the age of 36 and holding a Cristiano Ronaldo-like sense of entitlement, refused to compromise. Both of the party’s egos seemed juvenile given the fact that none of Israel’s natural strikers have been in good shape.
At the end of September, Benayoun was quoted in an interview saying that “even if we call 30 players for the roster, Zahavi is not one of them.” On October 25th, the tone coming from both parties was different. The IFA announced that the two have met and Zahavi will be joining the team for the final qualifying matches.
Benayoun was quoted: “The situation that was imposed on us because of the war, forces us to do everything we can to win, and the only way to do that is together.”
This unity is important while football fans are experiencing siege mentality, that it’s “Israel against the world”. There is widespread disappointment from the international football community, for not being able to speak up and fully condemn the massacre of October 7th.
In the first international break after the attack, UEFA refused to conduct a moment of silence for the victims, and then did so in memory of two Swedish fans murdered by an ISIS terrorist outside a football stadium in Belgium. Israelis have seen Celtic fans fill their stadium with Palestinian flags on October 7th, while the massacre was still taking place and before Israel even retaliated.
This happened shortly after the club signed a contract extension with winger Liel Abada, one of a long line of Israelis to have played for the club in the last decade and a half. Abada will also miss the Israel games due to injury.
The Premier League and its elite clubs, have issued neutral statements condemning the death of civilians on both sides, without being able to call out Hamas for what they did and their responsibility for the current war.
The same goes for La Liga and their top clubs, Barcelona and Real Madrid. The only league that has shown solidarity is the German Bundesliga, with multiple teams issuing statements, and fan banners in the stands of Werder Bremen, St. Pauli, and many others.
Many Israeli football fans support overseas teams, and are now feeling alone after their beloved clubs failed to sympathize with their loss and grief. In Anfield, a non-political flag commemorating four Israeli Liverpool fans murdered by Hamas, was taken down by stewards.
Tottenham, owned by the Jewish Daniel Levy and with a special connection with the Jewish community in London, has also enforced a no-flag policy in its stadium. Israelis are joking that everyone will move to become a Crystal Palace fan, the only English team to have unequivocally condemned Hamas.
Israelis know how to funnel these feelings for motivation. The team has arrived at this window of games in high spirits. The players have used the free time on their hands and dedicated their energies to volunteer with childrens of victims and survivors, families of hostages, and soldiers.
All the while, the Jewish players, some of them with an international following, have been keeping their social media aflare with advocacy content. With so many stories of unmatched bravery swarming the country, fans expect to see the players display the same grit and fighting spirit.
In addition, the football association which is not popular among fans during regular times, has rounded up the lovers of the game and created hype through inspiring emotional campaigns in the build up to the games.
Israelis say that 7th October changed things forever. In football terms, this means despicable fan chants that used to be heard in local stadiums, like “green is the color of Hamas,” directed towards Maccabi Haifa, or “you’re Neo-Nazis” directed towards Maccabi Tel Aviv, will not be acceptable anymore.
Unfortunately, it also means that the support Arab players received from Jewish fans is also under question. Despite the challenges, there is hope that Israel will prevail, more united and tolerant. The new-found unity between Jews and the ability to maintain the bridge with Arabs, will be front and center during Israel’s four-game challenge.
Starting Sunday, the country’s football team, after decades of disappointment, has an opportunity to set a living example of the Israel we want to see: gritty, uncompromising, united, and diverse. The morale in the country needs every boost, and a ticket to the 2024 European Championships in Germany could put smiles on faces of people who have hardly found a reason to be happy for over a month.
Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.
For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.
Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.
You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.
100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...
Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.
There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.
In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.
Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish Newsalso produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.
In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.
Voice of our community to wider society
The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.
We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.