Israel-Moldova Game at Site of Kishinev Pogrom About More Than Soccer

Israel's national team is aware of the shadow of history as it plays in Chisinau for the first time.

Dan Friedman Staff
Dan Friedman Staff

Israel's national soccer team takes on Moldova Wednesday night in its second qualifying match for the 2010 World Cup.

At a press conference Tuesday in the country's capital of Chisinau, captain Yossi Benayoun said the team is concentrating on putting Saturday's 2-2 draw with Switzerland behind them. In that match, striker Ben Sahar struck an injury-time equalizer to salvage what in the eyes of most fans had been a slow, uninspired match.

"We have to forget what has been written about us since the match against Switzerland," Benayoun said. "Everyone is wise in hindsight."

He added that none of the players is taking Moldova lightly, despite their opponents' less than stellar 2-1 defeat by Latvia this weekend.

"All the players are focused. Everyone knows the significance of this match, and the players know what is expected of them. We came fully prepared against Switzerland and we'll be fully prepared against Moldova."

Coach Dror Kashtan took pains to backtrack from earlier comments that the team's performance against the Swiss was not entirely negative.

"The team did not have a good performance against Switzerland," he stressed. "I said there were things we could take from the match, and by that I meant not every team can come back from a 2-0 deficit. I meant that this very fact points to character and spirit. I didn't say there's a new spirit blowing through this club for no reason."

At first sight, Wednesday's match at Moldova's Zimbru Stadium seems like any other tricky World Cup qualifier against a small, yet capable newly-independent Eastern European country.

However, as the national soccer teams of 50 European countries attempt to climb a step further into World Cup history tonight, Israel is aware of the shadow of history as it plays in Chisinau for the first time.

Before Moldovan independence from the USSR in 1991 and the national reversion to Romanian rather than Russian spelling rules, Chisinau had two fewer diacritical marks, and was known as "Kishinev," the same name it had when it was part of the Russian Empire.

The site of three days of horrific pogroms starting on Easter Day of 1903, Kishinev is a byword for the atrocities resulting from official encouragement of anti-Semitism in Tsarist Russia and eastern Europe as a whole.

With the implicit sanction of the law, nearly a hundred Jews were killed, hundreds were injured and scores of Jewish businesses were destroyed as crowds rampaged through Jewish areas, foreshadowing atrocities later in the century just north and west in Nazi-occupied Poland.

The pogroms provoked global outrage and a wave of East European Jewish emigration, but little changed and those who remained were victims of pogroms again in Easter 1905.

During World War II, Kishinev was all-but destroyed by a huge earthquake in November 1940, and by the battles between the Red Army and the Nazis over control of the city. The latter held control for long enough between 1941 and 1944 to organize the decimation of the remaining Jewish population.

This is a different century, a different generation, and a different game.

Now the capital of independent Moldova, Chisinau is getting used to an integrated European and global economy - including the global soccer scene. In Moldova's short history, they have played Israel at football three times - all of them friendlies in Israel, of which one was won by Israel and the other two were drawn.

With a functioning Jewish community and a revived synagogue, the only shadow looming over the Israelis will be the specter of soccer failure.

Dror Kashtan's men will not be looking back to 1903, but forward to South Africa in 2010 and hoping for a performance that shows a marked improvement on Saturday's lackluster 2-2 draw with Switzerland.

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