It was 1958 when ten-year-old Swansea, South Wales native Michael Plosker was denied the opportunity to make the short trip to Cardiff to support the Welsh national football team in action against Israel in a World Cup Qualifier.
Fast forward 57 years and Michael finally got to see Wales play Israel. Not in Cardiff, however, but Haifa, representing a typically Jewish story turning full circle. For while Michael still owed his allegiance to Wales as the country of his birth, his son Simon (that would be me!), born and raised in London, had made Aliyah over 13 years ago to become an Israeli citizen.
So there we were together at the magnificent new Sammy Ofer Stadium, supporting different teams. Tickets were snapped up by an enthusiastic Israeli public months before the game, possibly a reaction to a European Championship qualifying campaign that promised so much from an Israeli team that unexpectedly found itself top of the table having won its opening three games. It meant that I would be sitting in the away end with 1,500 Welshmen including my father.
There was a party-like atmosphere outside the stadium even with a downpour in the hours before kickoff. Welsh and Israeli fans mingled with each other sharing photos and dancing. Israeli border policemen also took photos, bemused by the good-natured songs and chants from a sea of red-bedecked Welshmen queueing to enter the ground. Or perhaps they were bemused at the concept of anyone actually queuing in Israel at all.
My father sang both Welsh and Israeli national anthems with gusto, drawing confused looks from some of the people in our corner of the stadium. The only confusion from thereon in was from the Israeli defense as the world’s most expensive footballer, Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale tormented Israel’s fullbacks and centre halves, assisting in one and scoring two other goals in a painfully one-sided match. Bale also contributed to the rout by drawing the two fouls in quick succession that resulted in a red card for Israel’s Eytan Tibi.
If I had any qualms about sitting in the away end while supporting the home side, these disappeared. A Welsh Jewish fan in a red curly wig draped with an Israeli flag sat happily amongst the Wales fans. In any case, there was little to draw attention to my true loyalties simply because there was absolutely nothing to cheer about from an Israeli fan’s perspective.
After 90 minutes and 3 goals to the good for Wales, at least one member of the family was happy and it wasn’t me. Just as importantly, this was the icing on the cake for those Wales fans who had made the journey and had a wonderful time in Israel. We spoke to a few fans. Some said how welcome they’d felt and how friendly the locals were. Another mentioned how apprehensive he’d been about travelling but now felt he was in the safest place in the world.
It was gratifying to hear that those misconceptions about Israel had been dispelled through a sporting contest. And while I may owe my allegiance to the blue and white, there are some things that can’t be changed. You can change your country and citizenship but you can never change your footballing tribe. It’s still Barnet FC for me!