Excitement mounted Thursday as Israel’s soccer stars prepared to take on Uruguay in the Under-20 World Cup semifinal in Argentina, in what Hebrew media dubbed “the greatest day in Israeli soccer history.”
The Israeli squad has pulled off a series of improbable wins, including a shock victory over powerhouse Brazil, to make it to the semifinals of the world tournament.
“We are going absolutely crazy,” Israeli fan Ido Wagletter, who was backpacking around South America and has been to all the matches so far, told Channel 12.
Wagletter said he was in touch with the Argentine Jewish community, whose members were also expected to turn out in full force to support the Israeli team in the game. Kickoff time is 8:30 p.m. Israel time.
Local fans said they had chartered several buses to bring supporters to the sold-out game at the Diego Maradona stadium in La Plata, some 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Buenos Aires.
The Israelis also found sponsors to print T-shirts and flags for the fans to make their presence felt.
The players were deeply aware of the momentousness of the occasion.
“Of course we are excited, it’s not every day that you are in the final of a world cup,” goalkeeper Tomer Tzarfati told the Walla news site. “We want to do something beautiful and make our country happy, which it really deserves.”
The game also presents something of a dilemma for Uruguayan-Jewish fans.
“I can’t choose. It’s the hardest question in my life,” said Gustavo Ram, a Uruguayan living in Israel who is the brother of former professional Uruguayan-Israeli tennis player Andy Ram. “I don’t know how I will react. I have Israeli children so I don’t want to scream for the Uruguayan goals in front of them.”
The diehard soccer fan married an Israeli after immigrating 30 years ago.
“I have very strong roots in both countries,” he added. “It’s hard, really hard.”
Uruguay and South Korea advanced to the semifinals on Sunday after winning their quarterfinal matches, joining Israel and Italy which did so on Saturday.
Uruguay will take on Israel hours before South Korea faces Italy for the other spot in the final.
In a landmark achievement for Israeli soccer, the national under-20 team upset Brazil 3-2 in extra time in the quarterfinal on Saturday, advancing to the semifinal and marking perhaps Israeli soccer’s biggest-ever achievement.
But in the third and final group-stage match last week, the youth squad notched Israel’s first-ever win in any FIFA soccer World Cup, with a wild, come-from-behind 2-1 victory over Japan in stoppage time, finishing second in Group C and qualifying.
After that, the team continued its unlikely run last Tuesday with a 97th-minute goal to upend Uzbekistan 1-0 and reach the quarterfinal.
This year marks Israel’s first-ever trip to the U-20 World Cup. Its lone trip to the main World Cup in 1970 ended without a single win.
None of the four teams left in the tournament has ever won it. Uruguay was runner-up in 1997 and 2013.
The tournament is being held in Argentina after Indonesia was stripped of its spot as host and participant amid protests in the Muslim-majority country against hosting the Israeli team.
Agencies contributed to this report