Should Israel be in the European draw for the World Cup finals?
ISRAEL’S CHANCES of reaching the World Cup finals in Brazil in 2014 look slim after being drawn in Group F alongside Portugal and Russia. Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan and Luxembourg are also in the group. One UK bookmaker makes Israel 20-1 outsiders to top the group and automatically qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time since 1970, and 4-1 to finish second and thus take part in the play-offs, probably against one of Europe’s powerhouses.
It would be much easier for Israel to reach Brazil if Yossi Benayoun and co were playing in the Asia Confederation, which expelled Israel in 1973. Yet even in the unlikely event that Middle East peace materialises, Israelis would reject rejoining Asia out of hand.
Israel joined Uefa in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had routinely vetoed Israel’s candidacy. Some sporting associations such as basketball had even joined their European federations before the Soviet demise.
The odds of reaching the World Cup finals may have lengthened but European competition has its compensations. Israel also takes part in the Euro football championships as well as a wide range of other national competitions, and will host the Euro 2013 Under-21 championships.
More significantly, Israel’s club sides get to play in the highly lucrative Champions League and Europa League. Israeli fans can reminisce about Hapoel Tel Aviv dumping Chelsea out of the Uefa Cup, or Maccabi Haifa hammering Manchester United 3-0 in the Champions League.
In football, hope springs eternal and upsets are likely. Avram Grant’s Israel was only beaten on goal difference to a World Cup 2006 play-off place. Besides, Israelis think of themselves as being in Europe rather than Asia, and competitive visits by the likes of Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo help nurture the geographical illusion.
Simon Griver is an Israel-based sports correspondent
WE KNOW that most Middle Eastern countries refuse to play Israel, but this is contrary to Fifa’s “Say No to Racism” campaign and Article 3 of the Fifa statute, which states that discrimination on account of “ethnic origin, gender, language, religion, politics or any other reason” is punishable by suspension or expulsion.
Those countries that object to playing against Israel should really be expelled from Fifa. But Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Qatar are set to begin their 2014 qualifiers. Israel’s only appearance in the finals was in Mexico in 1970, when they competed in the Asia qualifying section.
Which begs the question: how much better would Israel do if they were playing these far weaker Asian nations?
Israel is ranked 32 in the world. Of the 20 countries in the Asian qualifying section only two, Australia (23) and Korea Republic (28), are ranked above Israel. Had Israel been in the Asia qualifying section, they would have been seeded and, one imagines, would easily have overcome the likes of Iran (54), Saudi Arabia (92), Syria (104), Qatar (90) and Thailand (119). Thailand are there by dint of just beating Palestine (166) in the earlier elimination rounds.
But with Portugal (7) and Russia (18) in Israel’s European group, qualifying is going to be very difficult.
And what about next year’s Olympics? The Charter of the International Olympic Committee states that discrimination “on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise” is incompatible with the Olympic MovemeWnt.
But Iran will not compete against Israeli athletes. At the recent swimming world championships in Shanghai, an Iranian swimmer, Mohammad Alirezaei, withdrew from a breaststroke heat in which Israel’s Gal Nevo was swimming. He did the same at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Most likely the shame of losing to Israel is the primary motivation.
Richard Millett blogs at richardmillett.wordpress.com