When England, briefly, fell in love with Israel again

By David Horovitz December 28, 2007

From the best sports moments of 2007

Tracking Israel’s oh-so-nearly Euro 2008 qualifying campaign was a joy – a real family affair.

What a pleasure to be able to take the kids to a series of soccer games, comfortable that, give or take the abuse our neighboring spectators directed at the away team, the referee and frequently the underperforming home players, we’d have a trouble-free, fun evening.

Having been raised in an era of routine thuggery in the stands of England’s football grounds, it was quite a change, on the night when Croatia outplayed our local heroes, to see not only the complete friendliness with which its red-and-white checkered fans were initially received at Ramat Gan stadium, but also that relative friendliness endured even after the game had been lost.

Trouble was that when it came to what turned out to be a pivotal game of the series – Israel vs. Russia – in November, I couldn’t be there; I was at my best friend’s daughter’s bat-mitzvah in London.

So my wife, though fighting bronchitis, heroically ferried the boys to Ramat Gan. There they sat in their regular seats, next to a few fellow ex-Brits they’d befriended at previous games and behind the curious sabra duo with the penchant for crying out frequently irrelevant instructions in bizarre high-pitched voices to the players – who, of course, couldn’t possibly hear them. (My eldest son insists that watching this pair in action was worth the price of admission alone.)

The significance of the game could not have been more relevant to my personal circumstance. The result would not affect Israel’s qualifying fortunes. We were already out, in large part as a consequence of that home defeat to Croatia. But all of England, where I now found myself at the bat-mitzvah, was hanging on the news from Ramat Gan, where the boys were. If Israel, however improbably, could prevail or even tie, England, which had also looked doomed to miss out on the Championships, would be thrown a lifeline, and would only have to draw with Croatia at Wembley days later to qualify.

There was, of course, absolutely no way that Israel, ranked far below Russia in world soccer status, could possibly manage so much as a draw, much less win. And that was certainly the way the English newspapers were reporting it: Israel had nothing to play for but its dubious pride.

Much of the team, including talismanic captain Yossi Benayoun, was out injured. The goalkeeping coach was Russian and therefore biased. Russian-Jewish football oligarch Roman Abramovich was offering huge financial incentives to the Russians to win, and would surely have used his Israel connections to make sure the blue-and-white went down. And Guus Hiddink, the Russian-coach, came from a Dutch family that had helped Jews during the Holocaust. Surely Israel wouldn’t consign such a distinguished personage to defeat?

The deal with the boys was that they would SMS me at the bat-mitzvah whenever a goal went in, and I would relay it to the frenzied Anglo-Jewish football fans around me. Incredibly, the first SMS told us that Israel had taken an early lead. But as the game moved into the second half, more predictably, Russia equalized. Surely Hiddink’s men would now go on to take the game.

But no more goals went in for a while. And so, calculating that the final whistle was about to blow, I called the boys for the last word on the match. ‘Unbelievable, dad, it’s 2-1,’ Josh screamed down the line from the Holy Land, against a background of screams and chaos.

’2-1 to who?’ I shouted back, excitedly, if possibly ungrammatically.

But here the line went dead, leaving a goodly chunk of London Jewry in agonized suspense until the impossible was confirmed in the next call. Israel, having almost conceded a second-last-minute goal, had dashed merrily back up the field where the hitherto-unknown Omer Golan had slotted home a last-minute winner.

‘Israel saves England,’ blared the headline in the Telegraph. Even those papers whose editorial opinions generally suggest they would welcome our national demise rallied briefly to our side, lavishing praise on that hitherto derided sense of national pride that had so motivated our underdog 11 and generating arguably the most pro-Israeli English sentiment since roughly 1947.

Of course, England then went on to pathetically throw away the lifeline our indomitable team had so graciously thrown it, going down to ignominious defeat at the hands of Croatia on a muddied Wembley pitch, subsequently sacking its hapless coach and then, in a humiliating admission of utter managerial bankruptcy, turning to an Italian leader for hoped-for salvation next time around.

But that’s another story. On November 17, and for a few precious days afterward, Israel was the toast of England, and my personal internal rift – as an Arsenal- supporting, London-born, football-loving Israeli patriot – was briefly healed by the extraordinary endeavors of Dror Kashtan’s grass gladiators.

The sight of Eric Cantona turning back the years with his exploits at a summer beach-soccer tournament in Netanya may have pushed it close in the improbability stakes. But those moments of impossible glory as gutsy, in-your-face Israel (approx population 7 million) momentously defeated mighty Russia (approx population 140 million) at a packed Ramat Gan stadium were hard to top as my sports moment of the year… even relayed down the phone.

© The Jerusalem Post