Israel Beat Austria in World Cup Qualifier, but Match Overshadowed by Fans Heckling Arab Player

Soccer fans jeered and booed an Arab player who criticized on social media Israel's policies during the latest escalation with Hamas, but coach and teammates stood by Munas Dabbur

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Israel's forward Munas Dabbur after scoring the second goal during the 2022 Qatar World Cup European Qualifiers at the Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa, on Saturday.
Israel's forward Munas Dabbur after scoring the second goal during the 2022 Qatar World Cup European Qualifiers at the Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa, on Saturday.Credit: JACK GUEZ - AFP
Uzi Dann
Uzi Dann

Israel’s national soccer team wowed fans Saturday, beating Austria 5:2 in a World Cup qualifier. It’s not every day that Israel's local audience gets to witness their players face-off with a team that only two months ago made it all the way to the Euro 2020 semi-finals, where it was defeated by Italy, the championship's likely winner.

But the celebration at Haifa's Sammy Ofer Stadium was overshadowed by fans showering Arab player Munas Dabbur with boos when he scored Israel's second goal – at the end of a team offensive that he himself led.

Fans have been antagonistic towards Dabbur since he wrote a controversial Instagram post at the height of Jewish-Arab tensions in May. Dabbur criticized the conduct of the Israeli police and the army on the Temple Mount, writing: “God will deal with the perpetrators of injustice.”

Munas Dabbur runs to celebrate after scoring the second goal during the Israel-Austria match in Haifa, on Saturday.Credit: JACK GUEZ - AFP

Because of the frenzy surrounding the post, Dabbur issued a clarification and did not show up for earlier games. He returned to the team as it started its World Cup qualifiers.

Coach Willi Ruttensteiner said at the end of the game: “I love all the players, including Dabbur, and as a Christian I respect all the players on the Israeli team, without differentiating. I’m sure that in the next game no one will whistle or boo. The team was united, one unit. I spoke to Dabbur before the game and he told me he would play as usual. He would act professionally.” Dabbur himself asked not to be interviewed after the game.

Ruttensteiner added: “It’s not about me, it’s about the players. I’m very proud of the players because they gave their all in this situation.” When asked about Israel’s chances of reaching the qualifiers for the World Cup as a result of Saturday night’s victory, he called for patience. “We are in second place, but there are still a lot more games to play. We are in a good place but there’s still time.”

Disagreements aside

The fans were thrilled when, bucking the trend in the game, Israel led by two goals, thanks to Dabbur. This was a natural, instinctive response, despite the whistles and boos against him when he came onto the pitch or kicked the ball. The moments immediately after scoring – when Dabbur kneeled on the pitch and thanked God, and the crowd heard his name on the loudspeaker – led to ugly scenes. The audience that was overjoyed a moment before let out deafening boos.

Some may disagree with the content of Dabbur's post, others may think, as a Palestinian citizen of Israel, his statements express a pain and identification with his people. Regardless, the moment he was called to play, he became part of the national team. Anyone who boos him humiliates themselves and the team they supposedly root for.

While the audience’s conduct was in part problematic, the team showed inspiring maturity. The political opinions of the players more or less reflect that of its fans, but disagreements were set aside. As soon as Dabbur made his goal, all the players ran to hug him.

And if the players understand and act responsibly, hopefully this will trickle down to their fans, or at least some of them. Respect and responsibility are much more important than Saturday night’s big win.

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