Soccer in a Strange Land
By Daniel Fleissig
Ever since I started following soccer, I have wondered why Israel competes against European soccer teams
for World Cup qualification. Israel borders Syria and Jordan but plays against teams such as Russia and Sweden. Why
doesn’t Israel play its World Cup qualifiers with the rest of its neighboring countries?
The Israeli national team was kicked out of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) because a majority of Middle
Eastern teams refused to play against them.
Before Israel’s exile, it was an integral part of the AFC. For twenty years, Israel was a footballing mainstay in Asia. They hosted and won the AFC Asian Cup in 1964 and qualified for their first ever World Cup in 1970.
Despite this golden age of football, anti-Zionism in Middle Eastern nations was rising to the surface. More and more Arab teams refused to play Israel. The breaking point was in 1973, when Israel fought a war against an Arab coalition led by Syria and Egypt on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
After the war, Arab governments refused to recognize or negotiate with Israel. The AFC then voted to expel Israel from its organization, forcing the soccer team to wander around Oceania and Europe, looking for a permanent home.
Thus, Israel began its long search for a way to play competitive soccer and participate in international competitions. Over the next twenty years, Israel attempted to qualify for the World Cup through the Oceanic Region, and although they came close, they were ultimately unsuccessful.
Finally, in 1994, the Israeli national team was given full membership to the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). Its integration has gone so smoothly that most people have failed to question why exactly a Middle Eastern team would ply its footballing trade in Europe.
Despite an easy transition into UEFA, it has not always been smooth sailing for Israel. European teams are notoriously stronger and have a higher FIFA ranking than those in the Asian leagues. If Israel was allowed re-entry into the AFC, they would have a much easier time qualifying for the World Cup, granting them the opportunity to be ranked in a higher position by FIFA.
It seems highly unlikely that the Israeli team will be playing in the World Cup in the near future, but perhaps someday they’ll gain re-entry into their local conference, and once again play against their neighbors.