You will not hear “Hatikva” at the World Cup that opens on June 12 in Brazil. The last and only time Israel participated in the tournament was 1970. Yet even countries not famous for their soccer prowess, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Honduras, get to play on this enormous stage. Israel, which has a proud professional soccer tradition and a network of clubs, does not. Why?
The answer has nothing to do with lack of talent or Israeli culture being too high minded to pay attention to sports. The opposite is probably true: Israel plays sports in the same fashion it conducts any other business — unorderly, with little consideration for the future. It will kick the ball that lands near its foot, but won’t put together a successful formation that might actually win the game.
Yet if Israel has a national sport, it is soccer. That’s the sport that draws audiences to matches and to primetime television. Israel doesn’t lavish funds on sports, but of the pittance it does spend, soccer is the biggest beneficiary. According to a Knesset report from 2012, soccer got the biggest chunk of public support, at 41.9m shekels (more than $11m), ahead of 33.8m for basketball, which came second. And it’s also a relatively big business. A sports news site, One, reported that the latest budget of the 14 leading clubs totaled 388m shekels ($111m).
The underachievement on the international level is frustrating, because Israel has plenty of talent on the ground, good enough to play for prestigious foreign clubs. Yossi Benayoun[ played for Liverpool. Bibras Nathko was one of Russia’s top-paid players, and two years ago he was chosen as best foreign player there. After success in Belgium, Elyaniv Barda is back at Hapoel Beersheba. Dozens of others have played in Europe in recent years.
Israeli clubs, too, made forays onto the European field. In 2001, Hapoel Tel Aviv beat Chelsea on the way to the quarter-final of UEFA Cup, a major European competition. In 2002, Maccabi Haifa defeated Manchester United, 3–0, and 10 years later ascended to the European League.
But talent and passion alone will not grant Israel a place among the 32 nations competing in Brazil. The national pastime, like anything else, requires a long-term commitment to the organization and infrastructure the undergirds the sport, and that’s not something found easily in Israel. Better funding and higher professional standards, though helpful, are not the main problems. It comes down to a short-termism that characterizes decision-making within the soccer association and other semigovernmental sports associations, a standard Israeli approach that prefers tactics to strategy and gets in the way of building long-lasting and successful sports programs. Then there’s the typical blend of politics and business in which politically appointed administrators are making the important decisions and professionals must excel in petty politics to advance.
Bad faith is neither new nor only in soccer. Take Mihai Brestyan, who before immigrating to Israel in 1986 had been a coach of the Romanian gymnastics team that featured Nadia Comaneci. In Israel, Brestyan wanted to duplicate his success. But the sports administration didn’t provide him with the support he needed. He found endless bureaucratic obstacles in his way, and Brestyan left for the United States. His gymnasium on the outskirts of Boston has since spurred numerous achievements, notably the gold medal performance of Aly Raisman to the sounds of “Hava Nagila” in the London Olympics.
Or consider David Blatt, a basketball coach who helped Maccabi Tel Aviv win the European Cup twice. In 2005 he was appointed coach of the national basketball team, only to be forced out because of legal wrangling over whether he had a formal coaching certificate. He then turned to Russia, whose national team he led to a victory in the European championship and to an Olympic bronze medal.
The accomplishments of Israel’s great internationally recognized athletes — the surfer Gal Friedman and the judokas Yael Arad and Arik Ze’evi, to name a few — are a reason for pride, but they belie the deficiency of the institutional framework. Those mavericks prospered outside of the sports establishment, and institutional support has more often followed success than contributed to it; sometimes even international recognition could not galvanize the fractious locals into action. Team sports, however, critically depend on coordination, and accordingly Israeli soccer is a picture of its dismal governance.
So, it’s not geography that decides the game. True, to gain entry to the World Cup, Israel had to compete against strong European teams in a qualifying competition. But would a change of World Cup playmates matter much? The Asian group, to which Israel belonged well into the 1970s, has been boosted lately by Japan and Korea. The Middle Eastern group, too, now boasts excellent teams, such as Algeria, Egypt and Iran.
Rather, the weakness starts at home. Moralizing aside, a 1999 scandal is telling. The night before a playoff match at home against Denmark, team members reportedly entertained prostitutes in their hotel. The next day, Israel lost 0–5, thus ending the winning streak of the arguably most talented outfit Israel has ever produced. Matan Vilnai, the minister in charge of sports, called that “a professional failure” and added, “I have doubts about the capacity of the soccer association to learn and improve.”
There are international examples of how to do things differently. Not a soccer stronghold, Costa Rica, whose population and economy are, respectively, about 60% and 20% the size of Israel’s, wanted to be one. So Bora Milutinovic was brought on board. The renowned Serbian coach, who shaped up the Mexican team in the 1980s, took Costa Rica to the World Cup for the first time, in 1990. The coming World Cup will be Costa Rica’s fourth.
However, when Israel does bring in a foreigner, it feels more like an import of prestige than a sign of seriousness. In 2010 the Israel Soccer Association appointed Luis Fernández as national coach. Indeed, Fernández did a good job with Saint-Germain, a top French club, in the 1990s, but his subsequent record was less impressive. His stint in Israel, too, was brief and disappointing.
This general lassitude ends up degrading the professionalism at all levels. Before a recent match, Maccabi Haifa players complained, as reported by a sports site: “The worst punishment we could have gotten for the season is the ride to Be’er Sheva to a game that begins at 8 p.m. and ends at 10. By the time we’re back in Haifa, it will be long after midnight.” The two and a half hour drive must have been too demanding of the weary players.
The World Cup in Russia is four years ahead. If Israel wants to get there, it’s time to stop playing games.
Adi Gold is the New York bureau chief of Yediot Aharonot. Yoav Sivan is a New York-based journalist.