Photo by Buda Mendes - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images
Inside Israel’s Cinderella story at the youth World Cup
Israel’s soccer team hasn’t been to a FIFA World Cup in more than half a century. Now, they’re in the youth semifinals after defeating powerhouse Brazil
For decades, Israelis have loved the “beautiful game,” a term for soccer popularized by Brazilian footballer Pelé. But soccer has not always loved them back.
That’s starting to change.
Before last month, the country’s national team only had one FIFA World Cup appearance, in 1970. Over the course of three games, Israel’s team scored just one goal and did not advance out of the group stage.
Fast-forward more than half a century, and Israel’s youth soccer league is on a Cinderella run in the FIFA under-20 World Cup, the most important global sporting event for young soccer players. On Thursday, Israel is set to play Uruguay in the tournament’s semifinals after defeating Brazil 3-2 in a major upset last weekend that delighted Israelis and Jews worldwide and shocked soccer fans at the stadium in Argentina and beyond.
“It’s the biggest thing in Israeli sports in the last 30 years at least,” said Eitan Dotan, the spokesperson for Israel’s team. “Israel is a football country. Football is the biggest sport in Israel. Unfortunately, we don’t have lots of success in football.”
Everything about Israel’s run has been improbable, starting with the fact that the country’s players were almost not allowed to participate. The tournament was supposed to be hosted in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, a country that most Israelis are unable to visit without a particular type of visa. But in March, FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, stripped Indonesia of its hosting duties after prominent government officials in the country said they would refuse to host the Israeli team.
That two of Israel’s three goals against Brazil were scored by Arab Israelis seemed almost like a taunt to Indonesia. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman described it this week as “Israel’s emerging blended society … on full display.” Yet Dotan pointed out that the diversity is “not something new” for Israeli sports teams.
“If the relationship in the country between Jews and Arabs will be like the national teams of Israel, we will be in a good situation,” Dotan told Jewish Insider in a phone call on a bus ride after practice on Tuesday.
And now Israel has made it past the first two rounds of the tournament, defeating Uzbekistan before knocking off one of the biggest names in soccer. The overtime victory against Brazil was an exciting moment, but it came as something of a surprise for those who care about Israel but don’t know much about the country’s soccer program.
Close watchers of Israeli soccer say the team has been carefully building to this moment for years.
“It’s probably surprising to the global Jewish community to see it, especially because Brazil is such a big soccer power name. But if you’ve watched the youth teams of Israel, they’ve done exceedingly well across the board,” said Barry Waranch, a coach of the under-18 U.S. soccer team at last year’s Maccabiah Games in Israel. His American team made it to the finals against Israel.
“I like to tell people, We didn’t lose. We got beat,” Waranch said of the team’s 3-0 loss to Israel. “Whoever’s pulling the strings for the youth teams, they’re doing a great job, because the success rate is just pretty remarkable.”
Leo Krupnik, a Ukraine-born retired athlete who now lives in California and used to play for several Israeli teams, said “the culture of coaching has changed in Israel.”
“My generation grew up with, like, someone’s father or whatnot coaching us,” he said. But some high-level European coaches who have since come to Israel’s top soccer teams — such as Jordi Cruyff, a Dutch-Spanish coach now at the legendary FC Barcelona who spent six years with Maccabi Tel Aviv — have instituted programs that, Krupnik said, trickled down to youth players.
“This is finally the fruit that they planted,” said Krupnik.
Israel finished second in last year’s under-19 EURO tournament, ultimately losing to England. That’s when it first began to look like Israel’s youth soccer program might be going somewhere. And even though Israel hasn’t yet proven itself in the bigger competitions, like the FIFA World Cup or the Olympics, the country’s success in these tournaments for the youth leagues could be a harbinger of things to come.
“These Junior World Cups, certainly within the soccer community, I think are really big events,” said Marshall Einhorn, CEO of Maccabi USA, which oversees Jewish sporting events in the U.S. “It’s similar to college basketball, or the college sports scene here where you can see the potential and the future of the sport playing at a younger level.”
It’s also a different success story from other sporting events that Israel has performed in, like this year’s World Baseball Classic. Many of the players on that team were American Jews, like San Francisco Giants outfielder Joc Pederson and Jacob Steinmetz, a pitcher who plays for the Arizona Diamondbacks and in 2021 became the first practicing Orthodox Jew to be drafted into Major League Baseball.
For Israel to defeat Brazil with a roster of American players would surely have also been a point of pride. “To do so in any manner would be enough,” said Einhorn. But Israel is doing it “with a team that represents a cross section of Israeli society.”
“How amazing is it,” he added, “to see that cross-section of Israeli society come together in the name of sport?”
Israeli athletes are no strangers to hostility in global sporting events. In 2021, an Algerian judo athlete withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics to avoid facing an Israeli competitor. And during last year’s World Cup in Qatar, Israeli journalists faced taunts and shouts from anti-Israel fans. Pro-Palestinian sentiment at the World Cup was prominent last year, with many supporters of Morocco — which ended the tournament in fourth place — carrying Palestinian flags. Israel’s team, meanwhile, did not even qualify.
Now, Israel has a chance to make a name for itself in global soccer.
“The mission of the business that we’re in is to generate Jewish pride through sports,” said Einhorn. “This is generating a great deal of excitement and pride.”