Israel top Group B in their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. But why don’t they play in the AFC with the rest of the Middle East? Well the thing is, they did before. Conor Heffernan explains all.
Why do Israel play in Europe? It’s a simple question but one that’s emotionally and politically loaded. Bordering Lebanon in the north, Syria in the north-east, Jordan and the West Bank in the east, the Gaza Strip and Egypt on the south-west, you’d be forgiven for believing Israel should play her qualifying games in the Middle East. Truth is, once upon a time she did.
From 1954 to 1974, Israel was a member of and competed in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) games. Far from being a harmonious relationship, Israel’s time in the AFC was marred by distrust and outright hostility.
Prior to Israel’s birth in 1948, the Palestinian Football Association had represented the region. Once Israel became a fully fledged country, the Palestinian FA was replaced by a new Israeli FA. Outraged at Israel’s treatment of Palestine in general, many Muslim States flat out refused to play against Israel. This often led to farcical situations.
Take for example the 1958 AFC World Cup Qualification process when Israel qualified for the Tournament without having played a single game. How could a team qualify without playing a single match? Simple. No one in the qualifying group would play against The Blues and Whites. On this occasion FIFA stepped in and scheduled a World Cup play off between Israel and Wales to avoid a team qualifying for the World Cup without playing a match.
Incidentally Wales won the the tie 4-0 on aggregate to progress to the World Cup.
Yet despite the opposition of Muslim States to Israeli football, the 1960s proved to be a relative golden era of football for the controversial State. From 1964 to 1967, Israel won four under-19 championships in a row and in 1964 Israel hosted and won the AFC Asian Cup. In 1968 Israel reached the quarter-finals of the Olympics.
It was at the end of the decade when Israel qualified for the 1970 World Cup, her first and only World Cup appearance. Most remarkably of all, 1968 saw Iranian fans give Israel a standing ovation following Iran’s victory over Israel in the 1968 AFC Asian Cup. It may seem a small gesture but given the recent relations between these two States, it was the stuff of fairytale.
So from 1954 to 1974, Israel remained a member of the AFC, despite being a social pariah to many of the Muslim FA’s. Other nations, such as Iran seemed happy to play against Israel but in many cases this was the exception and not the norm. Such a relationship couldn’t last and unsurprisingly, politics in the Middle East were the culprit.
1973, saw the outbreak of the Yom Kippur or Ramadan War. For nearly three weeks, Israel was engaged in battle against an Arab coalition led by Egypt and Syria and supported by many others. Whilst the War effectively ended in a tie, the damage had been done.
Following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Israeli FA were in a no win situation. Whilst football is supposed to be an apolitical game, nearly every Arab FA refused to face Israel due to the fall-out of the War. Soon non-Arab, Muslim countries followed suit. This included Iran, a team who just five years beforehand had given Israel a standing ovation.
In 1974 calls were made within the AFC by the majority of AFC members, to expel Israel from the organization. A vote was passed 17-13, with six abstentions. AFC Members cited the precedence set by the African Football Confederation, who in 1958, expelled South Africa from the organization in protest at the Apartheid Regime.
There was one small problem however. When South Africa had been expelled from the African Football Confederation, FIFA had followed suit. South Africa had been banned by football’s governing body from international competition until it fielded a multi-race team. In the Israeli case, FIFA did not officially outlaw the Israeli Football Federation, much to the dismay of AFC members. This meant that Israel could still participate in international matches and attempt to qualify for international competitions. This led to a bizarre decade of nomadic football for the Israeli National team.
Searching for a new home, Israel first went to the Oceania Regions. She competed amongst the Oceania and Asian teams in 1978 to win a place at the World Cup but proved unsuccessful. Bizarrely in 1982, Israel was allowed to compete in the European Qualification process for the World Cup, despite not being a member of UEFA.
1986 and 1990 saw Israel return once more to Oceania in the hopes of qualifying for a World Cup once more. It nearly happened in 1990 when Israel lost 1-0 on aggregate to a Columbian team featuring the likes of Higuita, Valderrema and many more stars.
Finally in 1994, Israel gained full membership into UEFA and since then has competed in European competitions. So successful has the Israeli integration been in Europe that few of us question why teams travel to the Middle East to qualify for the European Championships or why Israeli teams compete in the Champions League. The downside for the Israeli FA has been that qualification for international competitions is now harder than ever as the calibre of opponent has dramatically improved. Such is the fate of a team reviled by its close neighbours.
In 1974, Menachem Heller, chairman of Israel’s Football Association and one of the founders of the Asian Association, said of the AFC’s decision to expel Israel from the competition:
“It is a sad day for sports. I came here in the name of sport, not as a political person.”
Unfortunately for football fans in Israel, it seems that politics and sports cannot be separated.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.