One of the great soccer cliches was coined by England’s ex-striker turned broadcaster Gary Lineker: “22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”
With the 2018 World Cup underway in Russia, four-time winners Germany are among the front-runners again, along with Lionel Messi’s Argentina (two wins), and France (one), behind hot favorites (and record-breaking five-time winners) Brazil.
But while the pundits attempt to expertly predict who will win, here are some emphatically inexpert thoughts on who I’d like to win, or at least fare well — for soccer and (mainly) other reasons. If you take offense at the surreal combination in a single article of such unrelated matters as the Holocaust and UN voting records on one hand, and silky skills on a soccer field on the other, please stop reading here.
As an ex-Londoner, a little bit of me still holds out faint hopes, dimmed by years of radically unfulfilled expectation, that England’s players will defy the terror that overcomes them when they find themselves with the ball at their feet and take home the trophy for a second time (after 1966 and all that). I know it’s not going to happen, but a fan can dream. Anyhow, given that England, which invented football [soccer], was knocked out of the last European Championships by Iceland — a nation with a population of 330,000 — anything other than the most abject of displays will constitute an improvement.
The other team I’d most like to support, of course, is Israel. But lacking high-quality players and an effective coach, it missed out on qualification by a mile, in a dismal campaign that included a 3-0 defeat, at home, to Albania.
Also absent, considerably more surprisingly, are four-time winners Italy (who I’d cheer for the beauty of their country rather than the defensive cynicism of their players), and perennial underachievers Holland, among the more creative of soccer’s exponents, land of Johan Cruyff and the peerless (to this Arsenal fan) Dennis Bergkamp (but who I couldn’t cheer because of their quite staggeringly dismal failure to protect their Jews three-quarters of a century ago).
Of those who are there, I can’t support Argentina, after it welched on a friendly in Jerusalem a few days ago (even though our embassy in Buenos Aires clearly doesn’t hold a grudge), not to mention Diego Maradona’s Hand of God, the most notorious goal in World Cup history.
I can’t bring myself to back Germany, place of my father’s birth. I do believe Germany as a nation has tried to repent for the Holocaust, but… And lehavdil (Hebrew for “really unrelatedly”), there’s the unforgettable matter of goalkeeper Toni Schumacher’s bone-clatteringly vicious challenge on hapless Frenchman Patrick Battiston in a World Cup semi-final. Yes, I know that was back in 1982, but watch the video and see if you don’t still wince.
More subtle, and performed at club rather than national level, Sergio Ramos’s judo-arm-lock demolition job on Egypt’s star player Mohamed Salah, in last month’s European Champion’s League final, is fresh enough and cynical enough for me to say thanks, but no thanks, to Ramos’s team Spain.
Salah has somehow recovered and made it to Russia, inspiring his country in the process, which is reason enough to wish Egypt success. Salah plays the beautiful game with a smile on his face, giving every appearance of loving it. Which is hugely endearing. Plus, Egypt is a neighbor, and I’d like our neighbors to be happy. And some of our other neighbors, including the Palestinians, will be cheering the Egyptians on — so the longer they stay in the tournament, the longer folks in these parts might be watching TV, which is a lot better than some of the other stuff some of their leaders might want them to be doing.
While I’m in our region, the Saudis may have gotten off to a difficult start, but they’ve let Air India over-fly their territory en route to and from Tel Aviv, they’re quietly warming ties, and they’re taking baby steps toward women’s equality, so I’m happy to put in an Israeli good word. Maybe the fellowship of soccer can extend to actual fellowship.
Over the past few days, Israeli TV reporters in Russia have been speaking to fans from Arab and Muslim countries, and Saudi supporters on Thursday — still in the best of spirits, before their 5-0 defeat to Russia — were happily talking not just soccer, but peace, with a Hadashot TV correspondent. Inshallah.
Iran’s supporters, collared by the same reporter a day earlier, were understandably warier, but consented to be interviewed — as long as it was “only about football.” So, yes, I’m hoping the Iranians do well, too — just not too well. Well enough, that is, to force regime-controlled Iranian television to show the folks at home what’s going on in the free world (or at least Putin’s version thereof); well enough, for instance, to ratchet up the pressure on the regime to let Iranian women into its stadiums; just not well enough to bring domestic credit to the ayatollahs.
The longer the Egyptians stay in the tournament, the longer folks in these parts might be watching TV, which is a lot better than some of the other stuff some of their leaders might want them to be doing
I’m also extending regional sporting goodwill to Morocco (sent forces to fight against Israel in the Yom Kippur War, but some warmer periods since), and even to Tunisia, in the hope it might both restore ties (after 18 years of rupture) and get back on the road to democracy.
I’m sure some of the 1 in 8 or so Israelis of Russian origin will be chanting for the hosts, but I can’t, sorry, not given Moscow’s alliances with the Assad and Khamenei regimes. (I imagine Putin will be heartbroken not to have my endorsement.) I can’t root, either, for Senegal (backer of 2016’s Israel-bashing UN Resolution 2334 (which I know should also rule out England, France, Egypt, Spain, and Uruguay, but they only voted for it; Senegal co-sponsored it).
I’m certainly not supporting Poland (the Holocaust and, now, the “don’t blame us for the Holocaust” law).
And I’m staying on the fence, appropriately I feel, when it comes to Switzerland — hosted First Zionist Congress (1897); imposed an arms embargo on Israel (2002).
I hope Brazil does fairly well — because soccer is life there, and because they were instrumental in the creation of Israel, as president of the UN General Assembly which approved the 1947 partition plan that revived our state. But they voted for Zionism=racism at the UN in 1975. Mexico’s a good friend of Israel, too — but also backed Zionism=racism, as did Nigeria and Portugal.
A big thumbs up, though, for Australia, which voted against Wednesday’s UN General Assembly resolution condemning Israel, and ignoring Hamas, over the deaths at the Gaza border in recent weeks. And for Costa Rica (voted against Zionism=racism, kept its embassy in Jerusalem until 2006). A slightly less enthusiastic thumbs-up for Panama, which voted against Zionism=racism and at least abstained when the UN condemned US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last December.
The experts are holding out high hopes for Peru, and I’m happy to back a country which had an ex-Israeli first lady (Eliane Karp) a decade ago. I’ll be watching out for South Korea, because it’s had diplomatic relations with Israel since 1962 and, with all that unpredictable neighborhood summitry, it could probably use all the reassurance it can get right now.
And since they opposed Zionism=racism, and are staggeringly at the World Cup despite their spectacular minnow status, and boast arguably the most hysterical commentator of all time, you simply have to keep a place in your soccer heart for Iceland.
I’ve not covered all 32 participating countries in this piece, although I’m not one of those curmudgeonly opponents of a great, big, sprawling World Cup. The more the merrier, I say.
Who do I want to actually win the thing?
In the end, it has to come down to Belgium and Denmark, the two qualifiers with the praiseworthy World World II records. Belgium saved half its Jews. Denmark not only protected its Jews while under Nazi occupation, but, to quote Simon Kuper, a soccer-crazy sometime Holocaust historian channeling Hannah Arendt, “they also told the Germans that killing Jews was wrong.”
Belgium, with a squad of impressive players, is actually one of the favorites to take the trophy, and has Arsenal’s record goalscorer Thierry Henry as its assistant coach. Denmark are far less fancied, but it is they who get my backing (and yes, I’m aware that their star player, Christian Eriksen, plays for Spurs).
I defy anyone to take in Arendt’s account of Denmark’s anti-Nazi resolve, as described in her “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” and not support the Danes — in any contest, anytime, anywhere. “For various reasons,” Adolf Eichmann would subsequently report, “the action against the Jews in Denmark has been a failure.”
Read why, and cheer on the Danes.