The success of Israel’s FIFA Under-20 World Cup team has been celebrated in Israel, and is making headlines outside the country.
The national team, which is made of Arab and Jewish players, united the country through their unexpected success. The team has also helped counter some of the accusations about Israel being an apartheid state, simply by bringing Jews and Arabs together; on the pitch and in the stands.
Yet, the impressive performance of the Israel U20 team, and their outstanding success almost didn’t happen.
Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation in the world, was supposed to host the FIFA U-20 World Cup. However, after the country refused to host the Israeli team, FIFA stripped its hosting rights and transferred the tournament to Argentina.
Israeli athletes and teams have faced repeated discrimination over the years, especially from Muslim countries and athletes.
Israel often faces criticism from left-leaning political groups, accusing the Jewish nation as being an “apartheid state.”
While many challenge that label, as it is both legally and technically not true, it has persisted due to repetition by political activists and pro-Palestinian social media campaigns.
The success of the Israeli U20 team in Argentina also helps to discredit the accusation of systematized segregation.
Three of the outstanding players on the team are from the Arab sector.
When the Israeli team upset the Brazi in a dramatic 3-2 finish, two of the three goals were scored by Arab players. One from Haifa (Anan Khalaili), and one from the Bedouin community (Hamza Shibli).
Team coach Ofir Haim said the youth team has not experienced tensions regarding the religious identity of the players.
“You know, it isn’t an issue at all here. We're one big family and we don’t have any problem with religion. Not at all. We have players here who put on tefillin, and Anan, Hamza and Ahmed perform the Muslim prayers,” Haim said.
The team’s dramatic performance, in light of recent tensions and division in Israel society due to protests and violence, has brought a sense of unity.
Yoav Fischer, a businessman with several projects in Gulf countries, said he hopes the team’s success will bring more unity to Israel.
“When people of all groups cheer for one team, and the team comprises all layers of society, it reduces tensions,” Fischer said. “It does not remove problems, but people see that there is a common goal, interest, and cooperation on the ground.”
Public figures across Israel, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Isaac Herzog, and social activists like Israeli-Arab Yoseph Haddad praised the team’s success and drew attention to their unifying performance.
Haddad tweeted a message commended the Israeli team on its top scorers and its bronze medal.
The next time they tell you that the state of Israel is apartheid, tell them that the top scorer of Israel's youth team at the U20 World Cup where they achieved a historic bronze medal is... an Israeli Arab.— יוסף חדאד - Yoseph Haddad (@YosephHaddad) June 11, 2023
Congratulations to Anan Halaili the champion!
Congratulations to the… pic.twitter.com/w5zpBVCzCe
David May, a researcher with Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) wrote a post stating:
“Jews and Arabs as brothers. Terrific example of coexistence.”
Israel wins bronze in the U20 World Cup with a 3-1 victory over South Korea. A goal and an assist for Israeli Arab Anan Khalaili.— David May (@DavidSamuelMay) June 11, 2023
Jews and Arabs as brothers.
Terrific example of coexistence. pic.twitter.com/vR9gjo9DZo
With the defeat of South Korea, resulted in Israel ranking third place overall in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, the team automatically secured its place in next year's Paris 2024 Olympic Games.
The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.