Last-minute Goal Tarnishes Israel-Russia Relations

A line from a poem by the Russian troubador-poet Vladimir Vysotsky has recently taken on a new and contradictory meaning. It says that "one in every four" people has Russian roots. For the Russian media, which often quoted this protest singer during the Soviet era, these words point to the deep cultural and familial connection between Russia and its emigrants living in Israel.

For the British media, the Russian use of the line was more than a hint. The British tabloids adopted this conspiracy theory and took it as irrefutable proof of what would happen in the game.

They expected the Israeli national team, for which last night's match was effectively meaningless because it had already been eliminated in Euro 2008 qualifiers, would not make an effort, thus helping Russia win and qualify for the finals at the expense of the English team. But the conspiracy theory shared by the media in both countries proved to be wrong, and Vysotsky's song will have to wait for another chance to come true. Israel won 2-1.

"The game against Israel has become a national craze," Israeli Ambassador to Moscow Anna Azari said this weekend. "In the media and on the street the game is the only topic." Senior officials hinted jokingly to her that if Israel wanted to improve relations with Russia, especially concerning the delicate subject of Iran's nuclear program, it would have done well to see that the game ended with the appropriate score.

Joking aside, these comments illustrate the extent to which soccer, the most popular sport in the world, has bewitched both the masses and elites in Russia, as throughout the world. Last night's game had one of the highest ratings of any television broadcast in post-Communist Russia, at about 40 percent.

The days leading up to the game were marked by a huge number of visa applications for Israel (which a cabinet resolution will shortly nullify). "Many of Russia's 'rich and famous' came to the consulate or sent representatives," Azari said. These include film and theater actors, television presenters, cabinet ministers, Duma members and senators, government officials and of course, the "oligarchs" - a euphemism for top Russian businessmen and executives.

Nearly 5,000 fans came to Israel, ostensibly to watch the game. Many wanted to see and be seen, but also, in accordance with nouveau-riche ritual and etiquette, to flaunt their wealth before their political or business rivals. The possibility of escaping from snowy Moscow for a weekend of Israeli sunshine did not hurt, either.

Most fans came on El Al or Transaero Airlines charter flights, but more than a few have private planes and don't particularly like the press, making it impossible to find out exactly who did or did not come.

On Friday there was still talk in Russia about three deputy prime ministers, including former defense minister Sergei Ivanov, coming to the game, but an extraordinary meeting called by President Vladimir Putin ended those plans. It also kept home Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who was expected to fly here in the private plane of his wife, Yelena Baturina. Her real estate and construction dealings have made her the richest woman in Russia.

Several oligarchs did come, however; a rough estimate puts the combined worth of the occupants of the VIP section at Ramat Gan last night at $40 billion. They included Roman Abramovich, owner of the English soccer team Chelsea. He and his companies no longer sponsor Russian teams, but to still the wagging tongues he is considered a kind of personal patron of the Russian national team. He pays from his own pocket the salary of its manager, Guus Hiddink, estimated at $2.5 million annually. On Friday Abramovich was seen visiting players at Tel Aviv's David Intercontinental Hotel.

Other prominent oligarchs here for the game included Norilsk Nickel CEO Mikhail Prokhorov - a former basketball player who supports the CSKA Moscow professional basketball team, the 2006 Euroleague champions.

Prokhorov, 41 and a bachelor, was recently arrested at a party in a prestigious French ski resort, in the company of a few high-class call girls.

Leonid Fedun, vice president of Lukoil and president of the state champion Spartak Moscow soccer team, as well as "singing oligarchs" Joseph Kobzon and Alexander Rosenbaum also came to see the game at Ramat Gan.

No less interesting than these arrivals was the decision by a number of senior Russian officials to schedule meetings with Israeli counterparts within a few days before or after the game. This serendipitous scheduling brought to our shores two deputy foreign ministers including Alexander Saltanov, who rarely stays more than a few hours or a single day in Israel. He suddenly found time for a long weekend here.

The other was Sergei Kislyak, who is in charge of strategic affairs, including Iran. He is scheduled to tell his colleagues in Jerusalem today whether Russia intends to transfer enriched uranium to Iran for the Bushehr facility.

Former prime minister Sergei Stepashin, now state comptroller, will meet today with his Jerusalem counterpart Micha Lindenstrauss, who certainly will not wonder about the timing of his guest's visit.