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The Secret Jewish History Of The World Cup

The World Cup comes around every four years, just like the Olympic Games, except the Olympics are for amateurs. And if you’re an American, chances are you are indifferent at best or totally oblivious at worst about the single thing that, more than any other, unites all humanity. The World Cup is reportedly the most widely viewed sporting event in the universe: Last time out, over a billion viewers tuned in to the final match — nearly one-seventh of the population of planet Earth.

This year, the quadrennial World Cup soccer tournament takes place in Russia from June 14 to July 15, during which time 32 national men’s teams — whittled down from more than 200 teams around the globe — will compete. (The Women’s World Cup takes place next year in France.)

The three national teams most glaringly absent from this summer’s competition are Italy, the Netherlands and the United States. In soccer, at least, America is no longer great again. Blame it on Donald Trump, or blame it on the fact that the rest of the world refers to the sport as football while we stubbornly cling to “soccer,” an alteration of “assoc.,” the abbreviation of the English term “association football.” If we can’t get the name right, do we really deserve to compete?

The Israeli national football team has qualified for the World Cup competition only once, in 1970, although the team’s predecessor, Mandatory Palestine — which included representatives of Jewish clubs, and clubs representing British policemen and soldiers serving in the region — competed in 1934. (“Club” is the term preferred in soccer — I mean, football — as opposed to the very American “team.”) A few individual Israeli players, however, have gone on to considerable success playing with other national teams.

Take, for example, Yossi Benayoun. After establishing himself with Hapoel Be’er Sheva and Maccabi Haifa, Benayoun played in Spain before moving to England, where he played for such top-flight clubs as West Ham United, Liverpool and Arsenal. Likewise, Tal Ben Haim tore up the competition in his homeland playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv before enjoying a decade playing for Chelsea, Manchester City, Portsmouth and Queens Park Rangers. Benayoun is now back in Israel, playing for Maccabi Petah Tikva, and Haim is back with Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Jewish players have excelled at football for nearly a century, the most prominent being David Beckham, perhaps the most famous footballer of all time next to the Brazilian Pelé (Edson Arantes do Nascimento). Beckham’s Jewish credentials, however, are a matter of some dispute. While he sometimes refers to himself as “half Jewish,” only Beckham’s maternal grandfather was Jewish. Nevertheless, Beckham wrote in his autobiography, “I’ve probably had more contact with Judaism than with any religion.”

In these pages last year, the Forward’s executive editor, Dan Friedman, profiled two players who were arguably the best ever to play for a New York soccer team. In the 1920s, a Jewish club in Austria called Hakoah Vienna attracted top Jewish players from all over, making it “the uncrowned champion of Europe in the early 1920s.” Two Hungarians on the team, Erno Schwarz and Béla Guttmann, stayed behind after the club played an exhibition tour of the United States in 1926; they enjoyed successful careers as players and managers into the 1960s.

Those watching the World Cup this year on the Telemundo network — NBCUniversal’s Spanish-language sports division — will be entertained by perhaps the most prominent Jew in global sports: Andres Cantor. An Argentine-born, Southern California-raised descendant of Polish Holocaust survivors, Cantor is one of the most famous sportscasters in the world, best known for his melismatic, emotional cry of “Gooooaaaaalllllll!!!!!!!” when a team scores. In 2015, Variety wrote of the Emmy Award-winning broadcaster, “The World Cup wouldn’t be the same without him.”

The most prominent Jew on the sidelines at this year’s World Cup will be José Pékerman, coach of Colombia’s national team. Pékerman was born in Villa Dominguez, one of Argentina’s main centers of Jewish immigration; his grandparents emigrated from Ukraine. The Ukrainian-born, Australian-raised Nikita Rukavytsya, who plays for Maccabi Haifa in the Israeli Premier League, will be playing for the Australian national team.

Other great Jewish players from past World Cup competitions include the Hungarian Alfred Schaffer, who scored 17 goals in 15 appearances for the national team. Schaffer joined MTK Budapest in 1915 and helped the club win three consecutive league titles; in two of those seasons, he led the European league in goals scored. Schaffer went on to coach Hungary to the 1938 World Cup final. He remained involved in Hungarian football until the Nazi occupation of the country in 1944. He was sent to Dachau and liberated by the Allies; he died after the war.

In more recent years, several American Jews have made their mark on football — I mean soccer. No, I mean football. Jeff Agoos sometimes appears on lists of the greatest players of all time. A star of Major League Soccer in the United States for a decade, from 1995 through 2005, Agoos played for America at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. The U.S. team at South Africa in 2010 included Benny Feilhaber, Jonathan Bornstein and Jonathan Spector. Kyle Beckerman — who until last November, when he finally cut them off, may have been best known for his distinctive dreadlocks — played for America at the games in Brazil in 2014. Beckerman has captained the Real Salt Lake club, based in a suburb of Salt Lake City for the past decade.

As to whom to root for in this year’s competition, the cutest, most adorable and sentimental favorite has to be Iceland, appearing in the World Cup for the first time in history and thereby becoming the smallest-ever nation to do so. The team’s coach, Heimir Hallgrimsson, has to work part time as a dentist to make ends meet.

Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward. Like the good North London Jew he imagines himself to be, he roots for Arsenal.

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