Blatter sad after Israeli soldiers enter Palestine Football Association headquarters


The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) reacted angrily on Tuesday and FIFA president Sepp Blatter said he was saddened after Israeli soldiers entered the headquarters of the Palestine Football Association (PFA).

“FIFA President Blatter was very sad to learn about an incident involving Israeli army force that happened yesterday at the headquarters of the PFA,” said FIFA in a statement.

“FIFA is committed to continuing its efforts to facilitate the relationship between the PFA and the Israel FA.”

The AFC said in a statement that its president Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa “has denounced the Israeli army's search of the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) headquarters in Jerusalem on Monday, describing it as intolerable and unacceptable.

“The AFC President stated that the military breaking into the PFA headquarters is a dangerous precedent that requires the international sporting family to stand together and support the PFA in standing up to the systematic violations of the Israeli authorities.

“Shaikh Salman affirmed that the AFC will start to coordinate with FIFA to study ways and mechanisms to put an end to the suffering of Palestinian football and send a tough message to the Israeli authorities to stop its attacks on various parts of the Palestinian footballing system.”

An Israeli military spokeswoman confirmed that soldiers had entered the premises because a number of people stopped for routine questioning outside the offices said their identification documents were in the building and the soldiers went in to get them.

“Soldiers went into the offices in order to gather the identification documents only, their presence was not aimed against the Palestine FA in any way,” the spokeswoman said.

FIFA set up a task force last year to try and improve relations between the PFA and the Israeli Football Association.

Soccer's governing body has called on the Israeli government to ease restrictions on the movement of Palestinian footballers and officials.

Palestine joined FIFA in 1998 and have qualified for the Asian Cup, which will be held in Australia in January, for the first time. Israel is a member of the European confederation UEFA.

FIFA said the Israeli FA and the PFA would meet again in December.

Amnesia, not admiration for Israel’s 1964 soccer heroes


Fifty years ago this week, a group of mostly blue-collar workers and army conscripts led Israel to its only senior international soccer title, winning the 1964 Asian Cup in front of rapturous home crowds.

The achievements of those amateur players, who would skip work to train for the national team, was part of a golden age of Israeli football that culminated in the country's solitary World Cup appearance in 1970, yet is largely forgotten at home.

The collective amnesia over the 1964 victory followed the 1973 Middle East war and Israel's expulsion from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) a year later.

Instead, Israelis now look to Europe, where the country is ranked 36th out of 53 UEFA members, while the 50th anniversary of the Asian Cup win comes days after Palestine qualified for the tournament from which Israel was forced from.

Israel had been Asian Cup runners-up to South Korea in 1956 and 1960 and the same duo were favourites for the 1964 tournament, for which Israel were hosts.

Hong Kong and India were other teams in the final group, which would play a round-robin format, while Arab and many Muslim countries had refused to play Israel following its formation in 1948.

“The players were very excited – for most of us those were our first official appearances in the national team uniforms,” said Itzik Visoker, Israel's goalkeeper, who was 19 at the time.

For local fans, it was a chance to see the national team against their continental rivals four years before the country's first television station began regular broadcasts in 1968.

“There was a completely different attitude – even now it's a young country, can you imagine 50 years back?” said Mordechai Spiegler, 69, Israel's record international goal scorer.

“We heard a lot about football in the world, but didn't have a real connection – we could only hear it on the radio. The game was popular, but we knew there were more important issues. To play football, it was not a profession.”

The entire squad played for domestic clubs, with the bulk of the 15 players appearing from three outfits – Maccabi Jaffa, Hapoel Petah Tikva and Hapoel Tel Aviv.

DIFFICULT TIME

They were a mixture of local and foreign-born Jews, some from families whom had fled Europe before, during and after World War II and the Nazi Holocaust.

Former centre-back Gideon Tish, 75, was born in Israel after his family emigrated from Poland in the early 20th century.

“It was a very difficult time, the family was living in one room – the parents and four brothers,” Tish said.

Most players were manual workers or in the army and they trained three afternoons a week.

“We just got small presents like to go to a restaurant and eat for free,” 70-year-old Bulgarian-born former central defender Moshe Leon said. “We played with the heart, not for the money.”

Israel's coach, the late Yosef Merimovich, a Cypriot-born Jew, took charge of his first match – a 4-0 defeat to an England under-23 side including future World Cup winner Geoff Hurst – nine days before the tournament.

“He was a wonderful man, very straightforward, one of the idols of Israeli football,” Spiegler said of Merimovich, who died in 2011. “He was somebody for whom the flag meant a lot.”

Against Hong Kong in the tournament's opening game on May 26, Israel dominated in front of a 25,000 crowd at Tel Aviv's National Stadium, but struggled to make a breakthrough until Spiegler bundled home with 14 minutes left.

Three days later, Israel beat India 2-0 with Spiegler netting a penalty before Yemen-born forward Yohai Aharoni drifted in from the right wing to finish from close range and delight the 22,000 crowd at Jaffa's Bloomfield Stadium.

That meant Israel needed just a draw against South Korea on June 3 to be champions and the National Stadium was a 50,000 sell-out. All matches were played in the afternoon as floodlights were not yet available.

“We were confident we were going to win – they were about the same level as we were,” said Tish, a then bus mechanic.

Defensive pair Leon and Tish put Israel 2-0 up by halftime, the former beating several players before finishing from distance and the latter dispatching a 20-metre free-kick.

In between those goals, South Korea had a player sent off and although the outgoing champions pulled a goal back, Israel held on to win 2-1 and spark raucous celebrations.

“It was a carnival, a festival,” said Asher Goldberg, an Israeli football historian who attended Israel's three matches.

Israel was among the dominant forces in Asian football in the 1960s, winning four straight under-19 championships from 1964 to 1967 and finishing third at the 1968 Asian Cup in Iran.

“It was the first step to get into world football – they (the fans) were very proud, but in those days the football wasn't so important because we were always busy with the wars,” said Amatsia Levkovich, then a 26-year-old midfielder.

“In my life I've passed through seven wars. We still don't know if there will be another one. It was important to represent the country, to hear Hatikva (the national anthem) in Asia.”

Spiegler said Israel's senior Asian Cup triumph was the springboard for it to reach the 1970 World Cup, although he was one of only three players along with Visoker and defender David Primo from 1964 to be in what was a youthful squad in Mexico.

NOMADIC EXISTENCE

Israel led a nomadic football existence following its expulsion from the AFC in 1974 until joining UEFA in 1994.

This exile from football's regional confederations meant Israel sometimes went four years without a competitive senior fixture, while it did not play a single game in 1982, the year of Israel's invasion of Lebanon.

Israel has not qualified for a major tournament since 1970.

“Now we belong to Europe, I don't think we have a chance,” said Levkovich, who was Israel's assistant coach in Mexico, where the team earned draws against Sweden and eventual runners-up Italy and lost 2-0 to semi-finalists Uruguay.

“The level of football in Asia has developed, but it doesn't belong to us.”

Spiegler said it was not a lack of talent that had prevented Israel from making more of a mark internationally.

“Good players are talking football but they don't bring it to the field, they don't know the difference between individual and collective sport,” said Spiegler, who emigrated to Israel from Russia's Ural Mountains in 1949 and played for Paris St Germain and New York Cosmos, where Pele was a team mate.

“We were a national team, but played as a club. We took away ego, worked hard.”

Yet despite those memories, the surviving 1964 squad members do not plan to mark the 50th anniversary of their triumph.

“It was a moment of happiness, of glorious celebration, a moment we take with us forever,” added Spiegler.

Reporting by Matt Smith in Dubai; Editing by John O'Brien

FIFA to help solve Palestinian sports dispute with Israel


FIFA president Sepp Blatter promised Palestinians on Wednesday that soccer's world governing body would help put an end to the long-running problems with Israel that severely restrict sport in the territories.

Blatter, who went to the region two years ago to try to help improve the relationship between the Palestinians and Israel, was applauded by delegates at a conference of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in Mauritius before FIFA's Congress starting on Thursday.

Blatter told AFC delegates he was aware of what he called “this touchy problem”, adding: “I can confirm I will help, FIFA will help. It's a problem of football. We will help you and this will be done. It's not a promise it's a will – and where there's a will there's way.”

The tensions between the neighbours have been exacerbated as the start of UEFA's European Under-21 Championship, being staged in four Israeli cities next month, approaches.

Last week UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino said after its Congress in London that European soccer's governing body was within its rights to award the tournament to Israel and would not consider moving it.

But Jibril Rajoub, president of the West Bank FA and West Bank Olympic Committee, said the situation had worsened since Blatter and International Olympic Committee (IOC) chief Jacques Rogge visited the region on separate occasions in 2011 and 2010.

At Rajoub's request there will be an open debate on the situation at the FIFA Congress on Friday.

ANGRY PALESTINIANS

Palestinians are angry that Israel's security forces, who control movement between Gaza and the West Bank, frequently prevent athletes from travelling freely between the two areas.

The situation is not restricted to Palestinians.

As a full member of FIFA and the AFC, the West Bank FA has started to hold more regional tournaments but the Israelis are stopping athletes from third countries entering the West Bank.

Recently two teenagers from Myanmar were stuck in Jordan for a week awaiting clearance so they could play in an Under-17 tournament before eventually been granted access to the Palestinian territories.

After Wednesday's meeting, Rajoub told Reuters: “It's crazy what the Israelis are doing. They should be asked either to respect and accept the statutes or pay the price. I am talking about free access and free movement for both athletes and sports instructors and experts from abroad.

“We just want to enjoy sport like the rest of the associations.”

Asked whether IOC and FIFA intervention had helped, he said: “No. The situation is deteriorating. They have to recognise reality on the ground and West Bank is a member of both FIFA and the IOC and accepts all of the standards and statutes of FIFA.”

He also objected to Israel hosting next month's Under-21 finals saying: “They should not be given this gift as long as they are not giving Palestinians the right to enjoy the same things as them.”

Reporting by Mike Collett; Editing by Ken Ferris

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