Moving into the international arena.
While Israel is technically part of Asia, the sporting landscape makes the tiny nation more in line with the European continent. Soccer rules in Israel, as it does in the rest of the non-American world, and while the country has its own hierarchy of professional leagues, Israeli teams often face European competition in international matches through UEFA (Union of European Football Associations).
Soccer: The National Sport
The structure of Israeli soccer, which is governed by the Israeli Football Association, is similar to that of English soccer and a number of other continental soccer federations. The best teams play in Ligat Ha'al, the Premier League; second tier teams play in Liga Leumit, or the National League; and third tier teams play in Liga Artzit, or the Nationwide League.
Each of these leagues has 12 teams. Big cities such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa are typically represented by at least one or two teams in the Premier League, and teams from smaller cities populate the other leagues. At the end of the season, the teams in each league with the two worst records are relegated to a lower league, and the two best teams move up a league.
Soccer has been a part of Israeli culture since before the modern state existed. Prior to 1948, men and women making aliyah from Europe founded social movements that they hoped would guide the cultural and political development of the future state. These movements were all encompassing--creating their own settlements, building their own infrastructure, establishing societal norms, and even fielding their own soccer teams. Two of the most prominent movements--the right-wing Revisionist Zionist Movement (Beitar) and left-wing Workers' Federation (Hapoel)--survive today on Israeli soccer fields.
Beitar and Hapoel
As competing flavors of Zionism were becoming popular in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, Zionist leaders established supporting youth movements. Right-wing Revisionist Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky founded the Beitar movement in Riga, Latvia, in 1923.
Immigrants who had been in the Beitar youth movement came to Palestine and then Israel, and their Revisionist forebears aligned themselves with the right-wing Herut political party. Its main offshoot, Likud, still boasts a number of former Beitar leaders today. Following the creation of the state, as fewer people joined civic associations, the number of Beitar youth steadily decreased. However, the number of followers of the Jerusalem-based Beitar Yerushalayim soccer team--arguably the most popular soccer team in the country--continued to grow.
Founded in 1936, the team did not achieve national success until the late 1970s, when, under the leadership of Uri Malmilian (Israel's closest thing to Pele), the team began to win its first State Cups.