It was 53 minutes into the game when Sweden produced a brilliant team effort to break the deadlock and silence the small number of Israeli fans in attendance. Having lost the previous match 2-0 to Uruguay, Israel saw the exit door for a few minutes when they went a goal down to the Vikings. Three minutes later a splendid long ranger by Mordechai Spiegler put Israel on level terms.

These three minutes brought some spark into a game which had, till then, been a dull affair. Players from both sides were battling it out at around 1 p.m. under the sweltering Mexican heat. In the end, Israel still saw light at the end of the tunnel. The light was put out four days later when a draw with Italy meant that Israel was out of the 1970 FIFA World Cup. But there was nothing shameful in the early exit. Having been thrown into a group that consisted of previous winners Italy and Uruguay and 1958 finalists Sweden, Israel was clearly the underdog. Appearing in the FIFA World Cup signalled a new era for football in Israel.

Yet, four years later in 1974 a Kuwaiti proposal amounted to the expulsion of Israel from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). The decision was made after 17 countries voted for the proposal, 13 against and six countries abstained. What had led to this aggressive decision against a sporting body which had no politics to offer, which did not disrespect the game in anyway and which had no history of foul-play? To understand why Israel was expelled from the AFC, one needs to understand Israel’s tryst with the beautiful game.

ERETZ ISRAEL FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION (1928-1948)

Football in Israel can be traced back to the 1910s during the Ottoman period. There are numerous theories as to who brought football to Israel but it was the British who actually made the game popular in Israel. According to Haim Kaufman and Yair Galily, in their essay – The Early Development of Hebrew Football in Israel, 1910-1928: “The British forces in Israel organized their own football teams which spurred the establishment of additional Jewish football teams and accelerated the process of making football the number one game, a process which had begun during the Ottoman period”. The 1920s saw the rapid growth of football and the first competitive season in Israel’s history was held between 1927 and 1928. And on 18 July, 1928 the game was formally institutionalized by the formation of the Eretz Israel Football Association (EIFA) which would later become Israel Football Association (IFA).

Two important figures were crucial to the formation of EIFA. One was a British Zionist, Sir Alfred Mond and the other prominent figure was Yosef Yekutieli, a Russian Jew. Sir Mond was a football aficionado and eagerly helped in the development of football in Eretz Israel. He wanted a unified Jewish team to tour the United Kingdom and he decided to hold a competition between the four best teams in the region which were Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Tel Aviv, Hapoel Haifa and Maccabi Hasmonean Jerusalem respectively. The competition was named the Mond Cup and eventually, recurring squabbles between the four teams and different associations led to the cancellation of the tour. This effort by Sir Alfred Mond increased the need for an all-inclusive body.

Any historical account of the development of sports in Israel cannot be written without mentioning the name of Yosef Yekutieli. Yekutieli was one of the founding members of the Maccabi sports organizations. In their essay, Kaufman and Galily point out that, “Yekutieli’s ambition was to integrate Eretz Israel sports in the international sports community but that required recognition from the international sports organizations”. Yekutieli’s request to FIFA to recognize Maccabi Association was turned down in 1925 citing that an Eretz Israel Association had to encompass all groups and teams and not just Maccabi.

Numerous other individuals worked behind the scenes for the establishment of EIFA but the efforts of Sir Mond and Yekutieli in many ways stand above the rest. EIFA officially became affiliated with FIFA on 6 June, 1929. Between 1929 and 1948, the Eretz Israel national team played only five matches. Two World Cup qualifying matches were played in 1934 against Egypt and the team lost both of them 7-1 and 4-1, respectively. Again two World Cup qualifiers were played in 1938 against Greece which Eretz Israel lost 3-1 and 1-0. In 1940 a friendly match was played between Lebanon and Eretz Israel. This was the first ever win for Israel in an international match. The game was won 5-1.

Eretz Israel would not play another match till 1948 due the events of World War II and the regional political scenario which led to the 1948 war of independence. After independence, the team officially became the national team of Israel and EIFA became IFA. Israel would slowly turn out to be a force to reckon with in the region.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS (1948-1964)

 The Israel national team’s first match was against USA Olympic which they lost 3-1. From 1948 till the end of 1964 Israel played 62 international matches and every year showed a marked improvement in their performance. During these years Israel came face to face with some of the best teams in the world at the time. They played against Yugoslavia seven times between 1948 and 1964; losing fiving, drawing one and recording a 2-1 win in the 1960 Olympic qualification. But they were put to the test on 19 May, 1963 in a friendly match against defending world champions Brazil which they would go on to lose 5-0. It was their biggest match yet.

Israel had also played in the 1950, 1954, 1958 and 1964 World Cup qualifying matches and it failed to qualify. In 1954 Israel was admitted into the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), albeit furious protests against this decision by many Arab states. In 1958, there was a huge controversy during the World Cup qualifying rounds for Africa and Asia. For the first round of qualifications Israel was pitted in a group against Turkey which refused to play against Israel and withdrew. Israel advanced to the next round which saw it in a group that consisted of Egypt, Indonesia and Sudan. Indonesia and Egypt refused to play with Israel and withdrew from the qualifying tournament. Pressure from the Sudanese government resulted in Sudan not playing Israel and thereby Israel automatically qualified for the 1958 World Cup. But according to FIFA, a country has to play and win at least one match in order to qualify except the host country and the defending champions[i]. Therefore Israel was pitted against Wales in two play-off matches that Israel lost. Hopes of appearing in what would be their first World Cup tournament were shattered.

But still football in Israel was on the rise. Israel ended as runners up in the first two Asian Cup tournaments they participated in 1956 and 1960. Israel became runners up in the 1956 tournament by beating South Vietnam 2-1. In 1960, they beat Taiwan 1-0 to end up as the second placed team. Israel tried hard to qualify for the 1960 World Cup but failed.  Israel made to the final round of qualification and had to face Italy. They conceded 10 goals and scored two in two games.

By 1963 Israel emerged as nation which had tremendous talent and plentiful potential but they had not yet stamped their mark on the international scene. All this was about to change drastically. The arrival of Mordechai Spiegler and Emmanuel Scheffer marked another era in Israel’s footballing history. 1964 marked the beginning a different team with different goals and strategies.

THE GOLDEN YEARS (1964-1974)

On 26 May, 1964 Israel began their third AFC Asian Nations Cup tournament which was held in Israel only. Israel had hopes of winning the tournament but only the strong South Korean team stood in their way. They kick-started the first match against Hong Kong and emerged as 1-0 winners. Their second game was against India whom they went on to beat 2-0. Mordechai Spiegler scored two goals in the first two matches. The final was held at the Ramat Gan stadium with an attendance of more than 35,000. Israel dominated the first half and scored two goals during this period. Defenders Leon and Gideon Tish scored in the 20th and 38th minutes. The second half saw South Korea fighting back and as a result Israel conceded a goal in the 79th minute. In the end when the Davoud Nassiri, the referee from Iran, blew the whistle, Israeli fans roared with delight and the players jumped wildly with emotion. It was their first success at the international level. A fledgling team that consisted of mostly army conscripts had emerged victorious. They were now the champions of Asia.

During the same year, the Israel under-19 football team was coached by the 40 year old Emmanuel Scheffer. He cemented Israel’s position as Asian champions by leading the under-19 football team to four consecutive AFC Nations Cup victories in 1964, 1965, 1966 and 1967. Israel beat Burma in the 1965 edition and in 1966 the same countries had to share the trophy and in 1967 Israel beat Indonesia to win their fourth consecutive title. Scheffer’s prolific record and his proclivity to win matches saw him being appointed as the senior team’s manager. Israel failed to make it to the 1966 World Cup and Scheffer’s was appointed to see Israel through World Cup qualification stage. North Korea’s refusal to play with Israel during the first round of qualification meant that Israel advanced to the second round. Israel and Australia were to play the final play-offs and Israel emerged winners with an aggregate score of 2-1. Mordechai Spiegler, who was then regarded as the best player in Israel scored three goals during qualification, two against New Zealand and one against Australia. Emmanuel Scheffer had done the job he was appointed to do and Israel qualified for the 1970 World Cup in which would feature football legends like Pele and Bobby Charlton.

Football in Israel had reached its apogee when Israel qualified for the World Cup. Israel was in Group 2 which featured Italy, Uruguay and Sweden. It was one of the two toughest groups in the tournament and Israel needed a miracle in order to qualify to the next stage. They fought hard and drew with Sweden and Uruguay and managed a single goal in the tournament, which was scored by Mordechai Spiegler.

There was glory in Israel’s exit. Israel finished 12th in a tournament which featured 16 of the best teams in the world[ii]. Israel was the 12th best team in the world, which was an extraordinary feat in itself. Another feather in Scheffer’s cap was when he led the Israeli team to the quarterfinals of the 1968 Olympics. Mordechai Spiegler continued playing football till 1977 and on 21 May, 1963 he scored his last goal against Thailand during the 1974 World Cup qualification. Even today, no one has beaten Mordechai Spiegler’s tally of 32 goals. He is Israel’s all time record goal-scorer and regarded as the best Israeli ever to grace the beautiful game. Emmanuel Scheffer would remain, till this day, the most successful Israeli coach.

The years from 1964 to 1974 were regarded as the golden years of football in Israel. Israel had qualified for the 1974 Asian Games football tournament. Israel had reached the final only to lose to Iran due an own goal. Israel emerged runners-up in the tournament which was scarred by two events. During the second round, Israel was placed in a group that featured North Korea and Kuwait. Both teams refused to play against Israel citing political reasons. This event would determine whether Israel actually had a future in football.

REFUGEE STATUS (1974-1994)

On 15 September, 1974, Israel was expelled from the AFC. According to The Sidney Morning Herald, The AFC “decided to exclude Israel from all its competitions”. During the 1978 World Cup qualification, Israel played as a member of the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC). For the 1982 and 1986 World Cup qualifications, Israel played from UEFA of Europe and OFC respectively and it failed to qualify even though it came second in the 1986 qualifications. Only one team would qualify from OFC.  For the 1990 World Cup qualification, Israel qualified, from OFC, for two play-off matches against Colombia to determine who would go through. Israel lost 1-0 on aggregate.

During these troubling times Israel wandered as a nomad from one confederation to another. Israeli football never reached the glory of the 60s after the cruel decision to expel it. Kuwait and the rest of ‘expel Israel’ bandwagon confirmed that the reason they endorsed the proposal was based on purely political reasons, politics was not the only cause. There are still doubts that anti-Semitism was one reason behind the proposal.

The political reason was the only one that could get AFC to endorse the proposal. Arab nations viewed the formation of Israel as a disaster for the Middle East. They fought major wars with Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973. The Yom Kippur war of 1973 was crucial in making the decision. The Arabs were defeated for a fourth time by Israel and this made Israel the antagonist among the majority of Arabs. The expulsion of Israel from AFC was one way of avenging the bloody loss of 1973.

During the early 1990s, a number of suggestions were made to include Israel as a permanent member of UEFA. This was endorsed by Australia and in 1994 UEFA granted admission to the Israel Football Association (IFA). This was done in three steps. The first step was to admit all Israeli clubs into European club competitions. This was formally done on 19 September, 1991 in Switzerland. Exactly two years later in Cyprus the IFA was granted provisional admission and finally on 28 April, 1994 Israel became an official member of UEFA.

***

Since the day IFA joined UEFA, Israel has been playing their matches under the auspices of UEFA. Israel has not qualified for any international tournament since. The only tournament it played in was the 2013 under-21 European Cup. Israel qualified because it was hosting the tournament. Israel is currently fighting for a place in the 2016 Euro Cup along with strong contenders like Wales, Belgium and Bosnia/Herzegovina. Their last match was a loss to Bosnia.

Israel surely has the potential even though the quality of the teams it faces today is quite exceptional. Israel has to prepare accordingly and has to base its strategy on dealing with the more technically advanced sides of Europe. We have seen glimpses of an Israeli resurgence when Israel drew with Germany and beat the mighty Portugal led by Cristiano Ronaldo. The Israel national football team is yet to hit full throttle.

[i] This rule was cancelled by FIFA since the 2006 World Cup.

[ii] 32 teams play now, instead of 16.