Soccer Diplomacy? Israel on Verge of 2023 U-20 World Cup in Indonesia

As the Israel football team excels at the 2022 European Championships, an interesting situation looms on the horizon

Photo by Seb Daly – UEFA/UEFA via Sportsfile

There is nothing like the randomness of sport and human events for creating quirks of nature. Combine the two and anything is possible.

The Israeli team qualified for the 2022 European U19 Football Championships which are taking place in Slovakia. This is the first time Israel has qualified for this tournament since 2014. Only seven teams qualified to join hosts Slovakia and the likes of Spain, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, and Portugal didn’t make it.

The qualification journey was a long one. In November 2021, Israel hosted Netherlands, Cyprus and Moldova. The four teams played each other once with the top two advancing to the elite round. Israel did this by finishing second behind the Dutch.

In the subsequent elite round, Israel was drawn with hosts Hungary, Scotland and Turkey. Again they played each other once and the top team would qualify for the championships. Israel did this by virtue of wins against Turkey and Scotland and a draw against Hungary.

Israel is in a group of four with  England, Austria and Serbia. In its opening game it conceded a 93rd minute equalizer to Serbia and it followed that up with an incredible 4-2 win against Austria. Against England this Saturday night, a point will be enough to guarantee a top-2 finish and advance to the semi-finals.

There is much more on the line than this.

The top 5 advance qualify for the 2023 U20 World Cup. So a top 2 finish will see them qualify for the World Cup and if they finish third, there will be a playoff against the other third place team (Slovakia or Romania). That Israel is guaranteed of at least the playoff shows how far the team has come – in its only previous appearance at the tournament, it lost all three games.

So this is where it gets interesting. The 2023 U20 World Cup is happening in Indonesia. Indonesia was going to host the 2021 U20 World Cup but this was canceled due to COVID.

Indonesia has hosted regional tournaments such as the 2007 AFC Asian Cup and the 1962 Asian Games, but this is the first time Indonesia is hosting a FIFA tournament.

The 1962 Asian Games are interesting because Israel was excluded from them.

Israel first attended the Asian games in 1954 and were back in 1958. After exclusion in 1962, they attended in 1966, 1970 and 1974. The craziest thing of all of this is that the 1974 Games took place in Tehran!!

The IOC were none too happy with Indonesia banning Israel from the 1962 Asian Games so kicked Indonesia out from the 1964 Summer Olympics. Indonesia responded by creating their own games called – Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO).

Who were the Emerging Forces? Cambodia, China, Guinea, Iraq, Mali, Pakistan, Vietnam, and the USSR. It looks like the make up of a UN Human Rights committee.

Give credit to President Sukarno he had no problem, calling a spade and putting GANEFO’s cards on the table:

“The International Olympic Games have proved to be openly an imperialistic tool… Now let’s frankly say, sports have something to do with politics. Indonesia proposes now to mix sports with politics, and let us now establish the Games of the New Emerging Forces, the GANEFO… against the Old Established Order.”

There was a second GANEFO Games in 1966 and then the organization collapsed.

Israel and Indonesia don’t mix, especially on the sporting field. They don’t play similar sports so this isn’t an issue but occasionally they come together such as Misha Zilberman playing in the 2015 World Badminton Championships in Indonesia or a 2006 Fed Cup tie

Should Israel qualify for the U20 World Cup, a lot of white noise is going to be generated by those who couldn’t care less about football. They will hijack this incredible achievement for their own political purposes and this is extremely unfortunate.

What this team has done is nothing short of incredible – not just qualifying for the tournament but now doing extremely well in its first two games. Should it advance to Indonesia, these footballers should be celebrated for an amazing accomplishment and not dragged into the quagmire of politics.

I’m not hopeful.

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David Wiseman

David Wiseman is the co-founder of Follow Team Israel, a Facebook page devoted to sharing the stories of Israeli sport to the world. It's the premier source of news about Israeli sport in English. https://www.facebook.com/FollowTeamIsrael