You only have to visit Israel during an important international soccer match to realize how soccer mad the country is. Restaurants and cafes set up TVs out on the sidewalk for their patron, the pre- and post-game shows go on forever, the matches themselves are dissected to the tiniest detail and, inevitably, everyone asks the question: Why can’t Israel field a good team and make it to the World Cup?
Soccer in Israel is a big deal, acknowledges Shay Golub, but it also has and has had a much wider appeal in Jewish communities around the world.
Golub should know. As chair of a national fans organization in Israel, ISRAFAN and past member of the Board of Directors of Football Supporters of Europe, he has his fingers on the pulse of the sport in Israel and in other locales where Israeli teams venture.
During relatively recent swings to Poland, Germany and Switzerland, he was shocked to see swastikas prominently displayed at football games.
He barely escaped assault at the hands of soccer hooligans in Cottbus, Germany. Supporters of Hapoel Tel Aviv were attacked in a post-game brawl in Warsaw, he said.
Some teams, such as Ajax in Holland, have been known as Jewish teams, even when they weren’t, and in Rome, fans have held up antisemitic banners at games of the city’s two prominent teams, AS Roma and Lazio.
Looking more deeply into the connection of Jews to the sport, Golub found a rich and storied history, one he believes is largely unknown to today’s Jews. Golub and his fiancé were in Toronto recently where he addressed kids at the Robbins Hebrew Academy with stories of Jewish participation in “the beautiful game.”
He believes awareness of that history can strengthen the identity of youngsters and instil pride in their Jewish heritage.
“I saw that through soccer you can let young people connect with their Jewish identity, as there were Jewish clubs and Jewish connections to soccer,” he said.
Golub sees himself as a goodwill ambassador for the sport “as a way to bridge gaps between people.”
Before the World War II, Jewish culture thrived in much of Europe “and many Jewish sports clubs were the source of today’s clubs. They developed soccer tactics.”
Bayern Munich, for one, won its first championship when a Jewish chairman and a Jewish manager led it.
At the time, Zionism stressed physical activity, and many Jewish clubs were founded throughout Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary bearing such traditional names as Hakoach, Hagibor, Bar Kochba, and Maccabi.
Jewish communities “opened clubs for Jewish kids at a time when regular clubs did not allow Jews to play,” Golub said.
Many were quite successful. Hakoach Vienna, for one, was “a super club that in 1921 was Austrian league champion.”
That championship team won in a way that inspired young Jewish kids at that time. They trailed 1-0 and 2-1 before getting the equalizer. In the last few minutes of the game, their goalie broke his hand and was replaced by a midfielder. The goalie, forced to play upfield, scored the winning goal in extra time, Golub recounted.
Recounting his address to the kids at the Robbins Hebrew Academy, Golub said they showed a particular interest in Israeli soccer.
“This year, a lot of Israelis are playing in European elite leagues, in Poland, Spain, England and Germany,” he said.
Maor Melikson is playing in Poland; Dudu Biton plays for Cracow and took them to the national championship, scoring the winning goal.
While the talent level in Israel is respectable, when the players are brought together they can’t seem to field a team that goes far in international competitions, such as World Cup qualifying, Golub conceded.
“Many Israeli players are talented but they don’t play well as a team,” he said. “We don’t have a foundation from a young age of playing in the same system.”
Accomplished players aren’t brought together enough in training camps and they don’t play the same system.
“Soccer is a game of mass energy that reflects society. In Israel, it’s eclectic and does not reflect Israel’s character. It should be small and clever.”
As he imagines it, Israeli soccer would feature fast mid fielders and lots of counter attacks.
Golub is about as familiar with Jewish footballers around the world as anyone, noting that the Americans have had a handful of Jewish players on their national team while Argentina boasts several Jewish elite players, including Juan Pablo Sorín, who captained the Argentine side at the 2006 World Cup.
And according to an article on a British website, “game intelligence,” you could outfit a pretty good team, historically, with Jewish players. Most talented among the footballers, if not best known, is Johan Neeskens, a mainstay on the great Dutch teams of the 1970s. Paired with Johan Cruyff, another all-time great, he was instrumental in developing Holland’s “total soccer” and scored five goals in the 1974 World Cup.
Others of note in the list include American Jeff Agoos, Hungarian Bela Guttmann, Joe Jacobson, who in 2006 became the first British Jew to play professionally in 25 years, Sorin, and Aron Winter, coach of Toronto FC who’s described as “the son of a Muslim father and a Jewish mother.”