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How Israel's young footballers united a divided country

June 9, 2023

Israel were knocked out of the under-20 World Cup by Uruguay on Thursday. The team's unprecedented run to the semifinal has briefly united a divided society at home while offering hope for future success on the pitch.

Argentinen Israel gegen Uruguay U20 Weltmeisterschaft
The Israeli U20 national galvanised their country across diverse communitiesImage: Luis RobayoAFP/Getty Images

Unprecedented protests against the government; a wave of violence resulting in a record number of casualties within the Arab community; a deteriorating security situation in the occupied West Bank; a society torn apart.

And then came a group of young footballers who have taken by storm a tournament some didn't even want them to play in.

Israel may have lost 1-0 to Uruguay in the U20 World Cup semifinal in La Plata, Argentina, on Thursday but, in a country riddled by divisions, the team’s success carries meaning which stretches way beyond football.

Initial attempts to ban Israel from Indonesia

The tournament wasn't supposed to take place in Argentina; the original hosts were Indonesia - a majority Muslim nation which does not maintain formal diplomatic ties with Israel and where protests took place in the capital, Jakarta, in March demanding the government ban the Israeli team.

The governor of the popular tourist resort island Bali, Wayan Koster, even wrote a letter to Indonesia's sports ministry requesting Israel be banned from playing in his province, prompting FIFA to strip Indonesia of hosting rights and awarding the tournament to Argentina instead.

Once the tournament got underway, however, it was the football which did the talking, with the Israeli team in particular making a name for itself with a string of dramatic late goals.

Israel's forward Anan Khalaili celebrates after scoring his team's first goal during the quarter-final against Brazil
Could success at U20 level help improve the Israeli national team?Image: Andres Larrovere/AFP/Getty Images

'The most non-Israeli national team ever'

After losing to Colombia and drawing against Senegal, Israel needed a win against Japan to progress from Group C. Despite falling behind and having a man sent off, Ofir Haim’s team turned the game around, with Hapoel Tel Aviv's Omer Senior scoring the winner in the 91st minute.

The last-16 game against Uzbekistan was just as dramatic, with Anan Khalaili scoring seven minutes into added time to take Israel to an historic quarterfinal against Brazil.

Here again, they twice came from behind thanks to goals from Khalaili and Hamza Shibli, two of the three Arabs in the squad who celebrated their equalizers by observing the Sujud, prostrating themselves in the Islamic ritual of thanksgiving.

Dor Turgeman, the Jewish scorer of the winning goal, then dedicated the victory to the three Israeli soldiers killed on the country's border with Egypt earlier that day.

Back home, many Israelis took to social media to praise Haim's players, with some of them calling the U20 side "the most non-Israeli Israeli national team ever" - in contrast to the country's first team, which has developed a reputation for letting the fans down at key moments.

In the semifinal, though, Israel's luck ran out as Uruguay's intensity proved too much. They will now play South Korea on Sunday in the third-place play-off while Uruguay face Italy in the final.

But whatever happens, the achievements of Khalaili, Shibli, Turgeman and their teammates have also resonated far beyond the pitch.

Israel's Dor Turgeman celebrates after scoring his side's third goal during extra time against Brazil
Israel is celebrating its newly found young starsImage: Ricardo Mazalan/AP/picture alliance


"You can safely say that the country is in a sort of Mundialito-mania," Uri Levy, publisher of the football platform Babagol, tells DW, referring to the Spanish term for a "little World Cup."

"Everyone in Israel is in love with this team, even my nearly 70-year-old mother, who has never even watched football."

Levy's mother wasn't the only one. The semifinal against Uruguay was Israel's most watched program on TV on the night, with a market share of some 23%. For comparison, Israel's first team's last game against Switzerland last March received a mere 7.5%.

Israel's success at the U20 World Cup has caught many off guard, but it is a welcome distraction from the current situation in which Israeli society finds itself.

Protests, rising far-right, division

The unprecedented protests against the judicial reforms by Benjamin Netnayahu's government have been going on for 22 weeks in a row, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets every Saturday night across the country to demand democracy and equality. 

One of the main subjects of the protests is the inclusion of far-right politicians in Israel's government, notably Itamar Ben-Gvir. The Israeli national security minister has previously voiced his admiration for the deceased Rabbi Meir Kahana, who vocally supported deporting Arabs from Israel in the 1980s and whose movement is considered a terrorist organization in Israel and elsewhere.

Amid the many divisions Israeli society has been facing in recent months, one man seems to garner consensus: U20 coach Ofir Haim, whose emotional reactions after games have become one of the national team’s trademarks.

Haim said he wanted to "unite this amazing, wonderful country." The former Maccabi Tel Aviv striker also complimented his players, saying they have "a huge heart."

"Let’s hope we learn from this team, both in football and Israeli society as a whole," said Israeli football commentator Yonatan Cohen after the loss against Uruguay.

Israel's forward Anan Khalaili celebrates with Israel's coach Ofir Haim
Coach Ofir Haim: "I want to unite this amazing, wonderful country"Image: Andres Larrovere/AFP/Getty Images

Arab citizens of Israel represented

Some of the Israeli U20's main players come from the country's Arab community. Shibli and Khalaili, both of Maccabi Haifa, have grabbed the headlines with their decisive goals, but Maccabi Netanya's Ahmed Salman has also played a part.

This comes at a time when Arab communities in Israel face an unprecedented wave of violence. 97 people have been murdered this year alone, in comparison to 104 people in the whole of 2022, with Israeli security forces failing to root out the problem of criminal organizations within the community. 

On the day of the semifinal, five people were murdered near Nazareth and a father and his three-year-old daughter were severely injured by gunshots in the northern town of Qafr Kana.

Sports analyst Nadin Aboud Laban says there has been a great sense of pride among members of the Arab communities in Israel following the impact of their boys in the team, despite still experiencing discrimination as a minority in the country. 

"It makes us happy and proud that despite all the racism we have been through, we are a success," Laban tells DW. "We know that there are big doors that will open to them, and this makes us really proud."

For Yoav Fischer, a football fan and a businessman who runs projects in the Gulf region, the national team's success could also lead to more acceptance between the Arab and the Jewish communities in Israel.

"When people of all groups cheer for one team, and the team comprises all layers of society, it reduces tensions," he says. "It does not remove problems, but people see that there is a common goal, interest, and cooperation on the ground."

Hamza Shibli celebrates an equalizing goal for the Israeli U20 team against Brazil
Israel beat Brazil at U20 level - but could they do it at senior level?Image: Ricardo Mazalan/AP/picture alliance

Infrastructure issues prevent progress

Back on the pitch, many Israeli supporters now hope the progress shown by the U20 national team will eventually result in the senior team making it to a big tournament for the first time since 1970. 

But according to Israeli football expert Levy, things are a bit more complicated than that.

"Will the success of the U20s provide us with quality players to qualify for the World Cup? I want to say yes, but I cannot guarantee that," he says. "When I look back home at the way we nurture players, the salaries of youth coaches in this country are not the best, and we lack the facilities to play the game at a level that will improve our players."

Iddo Nevo, a researcher in sports history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, agrees. 

"Everybody is happy, and it is nice to have a successful team, but I don't think it will change the whole scenery of Israeli football, which is rather mediocre," he says.

To improve Israel's chances on the international stage, more young Israelis - from all backgrounds - need to take up the sport while hoping that some of the players of this U20 side can secure contracts to play in major European leagues to improve their talent. 

"The main impact of this team would be that many more kids would start playing organized football," explains Nevo. “If this happens, it might change things. But in 20 years, not now."

For the moment, a divided Israeli society can enjoy the sense of unity brought about by their young team's success in Argentina - if only for a short period.

Edited by Matt Ford

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