The Israeli national soccer team is coming along in leaps and bounds. Having played four games in the qualifying tournament for the 2006 World Cup, Avraham Grant's players are currently tied for third in their group, alongside former European and world champions France as well as Ireland.
The sporting ethos in Israel, however, is a disgrace.
Who ever heard of a nation that is hosting an important international soccer match welcoming the opposing team's fans? Who ever heard of the host municipality throwing a massive party for the visiting hordes?
Anyone who knows anything about sports in general, and soccer in particular, realizes that the psychological intimidation of the other team's players and fans (in equal measure) is part and parcel of preparations for any big game.
Irish coach Brian Kerr understands that. He told the press that nothing less than a win would satisfy him, and you can be rest assured that when the Israeli side visits Dublin in June, the capital's city council won't be going out of its way to welcome a handful of Israelis. Can you imagine Roy Keane sharing a drink with Israeli fans at The Brazen Head?
But here in Israel, we're so hung up on how others see us that we fail to see how our obsequiousness is self-defeating.
The last time Israel hosted such an important soccer match was in 1999 in a playoff against Denmark for a Euro 2000 spot, and what a mess we made of that: When the draw for the playoff was made, banner headlines reading "Israel! Hallelujah!" ran in the Danish press; several Israeli players allegedly entertained call girls at their hotel rooms; and Haaretz reported at the time that "among those making an appearance at the Danish training session was Minister without Portfolio Rabbi Michael Melchior, the former chief rabbi of Denmark, who played as a youth for Hakoach Copenhagen. Melchior wished the Danish players good luck, and expressed his hope that the game would be a fair and sporting event." It was neither: Denmark won 5-0.
However much we like Ireland as a nation, there's no room for maudlin, dewy-eyed hospitality in sports. Let's just hope the players are less accommodating on the pitch Saturday night.
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