Israeli Sports

Moving into the international arena.

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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.

israeli sportsEach 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.

Since the end of the 1990's, the team's rabid fans in yellow and black hadn't had much to cheer. But in 2005, billionaire Arkady Gaydamak bought the team and filled the roster with expensive players from Israel and overseas. Only 21 months after purchasing the club, Gaydamak found himself hoisting the Ligat Ha'al trophy--Beitar's first in nine years.

Founded in 1920 in Palestine, the left-wing political and social movement, Hahistadrut (the workers' federation), had its own sporting union called Hapoel (the worker). The first Hapoel soccer team sprang up in the 1920s in Jerusalem (Hapoel Yerushalayim) and became a natural competitor of Beitar Yerushalayim--a rivalry that still exists today.

As the Histadrut movement spread across the country, numerous cities adopted the Hapoel name for both their soccer and basketball teams. Today, a dozen Israeli cities field Hapoel teams in various professional soccer and basketball leagues.

Maccabi

Similarly, numerous cities across the country field soccer and basketball teams called Maccabi, named after the victorious Jews of the Hanukkah story. Started as an umbrella organization for all Jewish sports associations, the Maccabi World Union was created at the 12th World Jewish Congress in 1921. Maccabi Tza'ir, the Maccabi youth movement, was established to improve the physical and mental fitness of young Jews across the world. When Maccabi made its way to Palestine in 1933, it stressed sports as part of one's education, and promoted the establishment of youth and sports clubs throughout the fledgling nation.

Today, seven Israeli cities are home to Maccabi clubs that play in professional soccer and basketball leagues. Maccabi Tel Aviv is the nation's most successful soccer team, having won a record 18 national championships in that sport. The Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team also has a decades-long history of domestic dominance and international success.

Basketball: An American Influence

While most of Israel's soccer culture derives from Europe and South America, basketball's popularity is due to an American influence. It's not uncommon for the top Israeli basketball teams to recruit talented former American college basketball players who were not able to make it in the NBA. A number of these players have settled in Israel and have become fluent in Hebrew. Derrick Sharp of Maccabi Tel Aviv, for example, became an Israeli citizen and is married to an Israeli woman.

Israel's greatest international sporting successes have come in EuroLeague basketball, specifically with the Maccabi Tel Aviv team. Maccabi has won 5 EuroLeague championships, most recently in 2005. In that year the team featured a host of American stars--forward Maceo Baston and guard Anthony Parker who both were on the Toronto Raptors; former University of Illinois player Deon Thomas; and Sharp, who played at the University of South Florida.

The team has won more than 45 Israeli titles, prompting a number of other clubs to try to pass measures to level the playing field. Efforts to enforce a salary cap have been unsuccessful. No other team has been able match Maccabi's wealth and, thus, its ability to sign top talent. However, to try to mollify anti-Maccabists, the league instituted a rule in 2006 that there must be at least two Israelis on the court at all times.

International Competition

Even with soccer and basketball's popularity, the most internationally successful individual Israeli athletes today are tennis stars. Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich have won 10 pro doubles tennis titles together and reached the semifinals at Wimbledon in 2003. Ram was the first Israeli to win a Grand Slam tournament, winning mixed doubles titles at Wimbledon in 2006 and in the French Open in 2007. 

Most professional Israeli tennis players spent their formative years as students at the Israeli Tennis Center, a non-profit tennis education organization with 14 locations throughout the country. Many of the centers are in outlying development towns or poor neighborhoods--consistent with the ITC's goal of promoting social development.

In addition to gaining international prominence in tennis, Israel has recently begun a string of medal-winning performances at the Olympic Summer Games. Israel has competed in the summer Olympics since 1952, absent only in 1980, when they supported the US boycott of the Soviet Union.

In one of the greatest tragedies ever to befall an international sporting competition, Palestinian terrorists killed 11 members of the Israeli delegation at Munich in 1972. The games were postponed for a day following the massacre and more than 80,000 people attended the memorial service in their honor.

Israel won its first Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, when Yael Arad won a silver medal for women's half-middleweight judo and Oren Smadja won a bronze medal for men's lightweight judo. Israel finally struck gold in 2004 in Athens, as Gal Fridman finished first in sailing. It was the first time the Israeli flag was raised--and Hatikvah was sung--at an Olympic medals ceremony.

Israel has a much shorter history at the Winter Olympics, only beginning to send athletes to the games in 1988. The country has never sent more than five athletes to any Winter Games, and most have been figure skaters or ice dancers from the former Soviet Union.

Israel's varied sports history predates the State itself. The immigrants who settled the land brought rich religious and cultural traditions with them, as well as their own sports. Without a doubt, soccer still rules the land--just as it was when the first pioneers made aliyah more than a century ago. But as more and more Russians and Americans move to Israel, other sports, such as baseball and figure skating, are sprouting up and gaining popularity.

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Gabe Roth

Gabe Roth is a communications consultant in Washington, D.C. While living in Ashkelon in 2005, Gabe was introduced to the Israeli sports scene by a group of teenaged Ethiopian immigrants, who were all better at soccer than he.