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

Desmond Tutu urges UEFA to strip Israel of Under-21 championship


South African anti-apartheid campaigner Desmond Tutu has joined calls for UEFA to move the Under-21 European championship from Israel because of the Jewish state's treatment of Palestinian sport.

UEFA has resisted the requests but Tutu's letter, to Britain's Guardian newspaper, which was also signed by ex-Mali striker Frederic Kanoute and a number of prominent sympathisers of the Palestinian cause, is aimed at increasing the pressure.

Last week UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino, speaking after the UEFA Congress in London, refused to condemn Israel or accept that the competition, which runs from June 5-18, should be moved.

Infantino told a news conference: “UEFA and the Israeli FA is responsible for football, it cannot be held responsible for the politics of a national government.

“And we have no plans to move the tournament, which is being held legitimately in a UEFA member association.”

After last week's Congress, pro-West Bank demonstrators broke into a banquet being held for UEFA delegates, interrupting proceedings, but were removed by security officers.

Palestinians complain that Israeli authorities restrict the movement of their athletes between the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the Islamist Hamas faction that calls for Israel's destruction, and the West Bank in which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah group exercises limited civilian rule.

Israel limits the movement of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank citing security concerns but says it has eased travel for athletes.

UEFA, European soccer's governing body, last week agreed tougher sanctions to combat racism among players and officials and the authors of the letter feel the same standards should be applied to Israel.

Tutu's letter read: “On Friday, delegates from European football associations gathered in a London hotel for UEFA's annual congress. They agreed new, strict guidelines to deal with racism, suggesting a commendable determination to combat discrimination in the sport.

“We find it shocking that this same organisation shows total insensitivity to the blatant and entrenched discrimination inflicted on Palestinian sportsmen and women by Israel.

“We call on UEFA, even at this late stage, to reverse the choice of Israel as a venue.”

The Israeli FA has consistently said that UEFA will not bring political issues into the soccer arena.

Tutu, 81, the former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for standing up against white-minority rule in South Africa.

He played a pivotal role in the downfall of apartheid and subsequently worked to heal wounds in South Africa's traumatised society.

Additional reporting by Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Mike Collett. Writing by Mark Meadows, editing by Tony Goodson

Alleged anti-Semitism of Rome team’s soccer fans to be investigated


European soccer authorities have opened disciplinary proceedings against the Rome soccer team Lazio for the alleged anti-Semitism of its fans.

The action follows alleged racist chanting and other racist and anti-Semitic behavior on the part of hardcore fans at a match with London’s Tottenham Hotspur team in Rome in November. Tottenham has many Jewish supporters who sometimes call themselves the “Yid army.”

According to a statement issued Monday by the Union of European Football Associations, “Proceedings will also be instigated against Lazio for throwing of missiles and/or fireworks by their supporters, incidents of a non-sporting nature, late team arrival at the stadium, and late handling of the team sheet.”

At the Nov. 22 match, Lazio fans chanted “Juden Tottenham” and unfurled a large banner reading “Free Palestine.” The game ended in a 0-0 draw. Lazio is known for its militant, far-right hardcore fans.

The night before the match, several Tottenham fans were injured when dozens of men wearing masks and helmets, and wielding knives and clubs, attacked them at a pub on central Rome’s popular Campo de’ Fiori.

The UEFA statement said the soccer union “will also commence proceedings against Tottenham Hotspur FC, who face charges related to crowd disturbances.” The UEFA's Control and Disciplinary Body will discuss both cases on Jan. 24.

Euro Under-21 teams play down security worries in Israel


Teams have shrugged off security fears in Israel and are looking forward to next year's Euro Under-21 soccer championships due to be held in cities targeted by Palestinian militants last week, coaches said on Wednesday.

Several sporting events in the Jewish state had to be postponed during an eight-day Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip during which Islamist militants launched hundreds of rockets on Israeli towns as far north as the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Europe's national Olympic committees also scrapped a congress they were due to hold next month in Eilat.

The fighting, in which some 170 gazans – more than half of them civilians – and six Israelis including four civilians were killed, ended in an Egyptian-brokered truce agreement a week ago.

“We are professionals, we want to come to put on a sporting spectacle, politics really doesn't interest me,” England coach Stuart Pearce told Reuters after the draw for next June's tournament was held in Tel Aviv.

The biennial tournament is being held for the 19th time and will be hosted in the coastal cities of Tel Aviv, Petah Tikva, Netanya and in Jerusalem between June 5-18.

Norway coach Per Joar Hansen felt the situation had stabilised following the ceasefire.

“We were following events on television and saw the problems here but we talked to the Norwegian government and the Norwegian embassy here and to (European soccer's governing body) UEFA and now that the war has stopped we are looking forward to come to play here,” he said.

Holders Spain will face a tough challenge to retain their title. They will be up against 2009 winners Germany, the Netherlands and Russia in Group B.

Israel were drawn with England, Italy and Norway in Group A. The top two teams in each group advance to the semi-finals.

Pearce, leading his side to a fourth consecutive tournament, expects a difficult group stage against strong opposition.

“I think whoever (wants to win) this tournament will have their work cut out, there are eight fantastic sides here. This is my fourth tournament and this is the strongest pool of teams that have come to an Under-21 tournament,” Pearce told Reuters.

Israel coach Guy Luzon said it was clear the host side were the weakest team in the event and that his players would need an upset to have a chance of advancing to the semi-finals.

“The difference between our players and those of England or Italy is like the difference between our premier league and the English Premier League or Serie A. They are huge but on a given day, if we play our best and manage an upset, perhaps we can do something,” he said.

The tournament will be one of the biggest sporting events Israel has held in the past five decades – Tel Aviv hosted the Paralympic Games in 1968 – and its biggest soccer tournament since joining UEFA in 1992.

Writing by Ori Lewis, editing by Mark Meadows

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