Though Israel is not among the 32 countries competing in the World Cup, Israeli soccer has not gone completely unrepresented at the quadrennial showdown now being contested in Germany.
Today, Ghana’s John Paintsil is playing for his native land, but under normal circumstances he plays for Hapoel Tel Aviv. And so, when it came time to celebrate Ghana’s shocking victory over the Czech Republic last week — first after a goal scored late in the game and then after the game was through — Paintsil waved an Israeli flag he had been hiding in his sock. “The fans [in Israel] always made me happy,” he explained later, “so I wanted to make them happy.”
And so he did. Hapoel Tel Aviv issued a statement expressing pride in its player, and a Jerusalem Post writer declared, “At last we have an ambassador for Israel who doesn’t care about politics.”
But not everyone was overjoyed. “Egyptians supported the Ghanaian team all the way until the 82nd minute, and regretted it after the Israeli flag,” one Egyptian paper said. Others in the Egyptian press suggested that Paintsil is a “Mossad agent,” that “an Israeli paid him to do it” or that he’s just “ignorant and stupid.” One commentator, writing in Egypt’s state-owned Al-Ahram, accused an Israeli coach of running a camp where Ghanaian players are brainwashed.
Two days after the flag waving, Ghanaian team spokesman Randy Abbey apologized, calling Paintsil’s act “naive.” Abbey insisted, “[Paintsil] did not act out of malice for the Arab people or in support of Israel.” FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, expressed no reservations.
Whatever the world’s verdict, Paintsil is sure to be welcomed back to Israel with open arms. “We have an Israeli at the World Cup,” beamed Ophir Pines-Paz, Israel’s sports minister. “John Paintsil’s gesture has warmed our hearts, and many Israelis have now become supporters of Ghana.”
As of press time, Ghana had not played its final game of the contest’s first round, which will determine whether or not the team will advance. We wish Paintsil the best of luck, but in this instance our allegiances are somewhat divided: Ghana will be playing the United States.