Reader Post: AFC Substitution: In – Palestine, Out – Israel

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The Asian Cup just got underway in Australia. In addition to the hosts, all the big teams of the region such as Japan, Iran, North Korea, South Korea and Iraq are present.

What is noteworthy about this year’s tournament is the appearance of Palestine – its first ever participation in a major international football (soccer) tournament. It qualified for the Asian Cup by virtue of winning the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup.

Who says sports and politics don’t mix? What we are about to see is sport and politics intertwine as if it were a double helix.



With a strong British influence, football was played in the Mandate at the beginning of the start of the 20th century. Maccabi Tel Aviv was established in 1906. More teams came about and this led to the creation of a league in 1928 known as the Palestine League.

Palestine football team during the tour in Egypt in 1930
Palestine football team during the tour in Egypt in 1930

The first World Cup was held in 1930. By the time the second one was held, a national team representing the Mandate was formed. It was referred to as the British Mandate of Palestine and they were the first Asian team to attempt to qualify for the World Cup. The team which consisted of Brits, Jews and an Arab lost to Egypt. Four years later they were knocked out by Greece.

Then World War Two put most footballing activities on hold.

The world that emerged post World War 2 was a very different one. The first World Cup following it was the 1950 World Cup. Gone was the Mandate and in its place was the newly minted country of Israel. The Asian Confederation didn’t yet exist – it would only be formed in 1956, so both Israel and Syria had to qualify in Europe.

The first Asian Cup was held in 1956. It was held in Hong Kong, where the hosts competed against South Vietnam, South Korea and Israel. Israel were runners-up to South Korea.

Iran vs. Israel Asian Cup 1968
Iran vs. Israel Asian Cup 1968

Four years later, Israel qualified for the second Asian Cup by defeating Iran, Pakistan and India in qualifiers that all took place in India. That is right, ladies and gentleman, Iran competed against Israel in a sporting event. In the tournament proper, Israel were again runners-up to South Korea.

In 1964, the third Asian Cup was to be hosted by Israel. It finally won the tournament, staving off India, South Korea and Hong Kong for the title.

Come 1968 and it was post the Six-Day War, so the climate was very different indeed. The tournament was to be held in Iran and Israel qualified. You read right. Israel competed in an international sporting tournament in Iran.

The five finalists were Iran, Burma, Israel, China and Hong Kong. The final match of the tournament saw defending champion Israel against hosts Iran.

Iran held a two point lead and held the superior goal difference. Only an Israeli win would give them the championship and a Giora Spiegel goal put them ahead with just over a half-hour to play. Two late Iran goals gave them the title and the bragging rights.

Israel was to host the 1972 Asian Cup and didn’t, but they did participate at the 1974 Asian Games that took place in Iran. In the second round, both North Korea and Kuwait forfeited against Israel, sending the Israelis through to the final where they would take on Iran in the gold-medal game. The game took place 24 hours before Rosh Hashana and Iran won 1-0.

Kuwait proposed to kick Israel out of the AFC and the vote went through 17-13 with 6 abstentions.

If not part of Asia, then where did Israel belong? FIFA didn’t know what to do and it also had this recurring problem of not knowing what to do with Australia, so killed two birds with one stone by combining them. The irony of this is that eventually Australia would make its way to Asia. In 1991, Israel was admitted to UEFA and has remained in the European confederation ever since.

What is the point of all this? By no means is this the first instance of national sporting teams morphing due to a changing geopolitical situation. East Germany and West Germany used to have separate teams, Ireland used to have one unified team, the Soviet Union was an amalgamation of all of the various nations and Yugoslavia split into Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro.

The point is like your preferred football formation – whatever you want it to be.

David Wiseman is a keen sports and pop culture enthusiast. He can be found at twitter.com/daw1975

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