Who knew? 10 Jews and the World Cup

We take a look at the secret history


By Nadav Shemer, June 12, 2014
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Paintsil: celebration

Paintsil: celebration

1. Meisl's Wunderteam

The Anschluss was still four years away when Hugo Meisl coached his Austrian Wunderteam to the 1934 semi-finals. They bowed out 0-1 to hosts and eventual champions Italy, but would be remembered for pioneering a style later rebranded "total football" by the great Dutch sides of the 1970s. That a Jew could manage Austria so shortly before the Holocaust was testament to the community's influence on local football; Hakoah Vienna even won the inaugural professional league championship in 1925. Meisl died of a heart attack in 1937. Star player Matthias Sindelar later refused to join the unified German team.

2. Hungary makes the final

There was no Hakoah equivalent in Hungary, although 23-time league champions MTK initially drew a significant proportion of its fans and players from Budapest's large Jewish community. One of these players, Alfred Schaffer, scored 17 goals in 15 appearances for the national team, and later coached Hungary to the 1938 final, where they lost 4-2 to Italy.

Schaffer was involved in Hungarian football until the Nazi occupation of the country in 1944. He was sent to Dachau, liberated by the Allies, and died after the war.

3. Israeli flag flies high

Israel predictably failed to qualify in 2006, but it made an unexpected appearance in Ghana's 2-0 win over the Czech Republic.

Former Hapoel Tel Aviv defender John Paintsil, one of three players in the Ghanaian squad then plying their trade in Israel's Ligat Ha'al, pulled a small Israeli flag out of his sock and waved it to the crowd as his teammates celebrated a goal.

4. Israel on the world stage

Israel declared independence in 1948, but only really became a member of the international community with its first and only appearance at the World Cup in Mexico in 1970. The team put in an admirable performance in the Group of Death, losing 2-0 to semi-finalist Uruguay, but drawing 0-0 with runner-up Italy and 1-1 with Sweden – Mordechai Spiegler scoring the equaliser in the 57th minute.

5. Before Graham Poll...

There were Israelis Menachem Ashkenazi and Avraham Klein. Ashkenazi refereed two matches in 1966, including the quarter-final at Goodison Park in which Eusebio scored four goals as Portugal overcame a 3-0 deficit against North Korea. Klein, once considered the best referee in the world, officiated in 1970, 1974 and 1982. He denied Argentina a penalty in front of their home crowd against Italy in 1978, and the Argentines banned him from all their remaining matches. Klein participated in the final in 1982 - as a linesman.

6. The Pitbull

Beckham's sending off against Argentina ensured he wasn't the best-performed player with Jewish roots at the 1998 World Cup. That title belonged to Edgar Davids, the Surinamese-born Dutch player with those trademark protective glasses that his Jewish mother no doubt nagged him to wear. Davids, nicknamed "the Pitbull", scored the winner for the Netherlands against Yugoslavia and was named in the tournament's all-star squad. In what must have been an attempt to get closer to his heritage, Davids later moved to North London and had a stint as player-manager of League Two side Barnet.

7. Land of Opportunity

The United States has been the land of opportunity for Jews, a number of who have represented the national football, ahem, soccer team. Centre-back Jeff Agoos was the most famous, earning 134 caps and appearing at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. Sadly, his only goal at a Mundial went into his own net in a game against Portugal, although the US still won 3-2. Three Jewish players were in the squad at South Africa 2010: Benny Feilhaber, Jonathan Bornstein, and Jonathan Spector. One, Kyle Beckerman, will be present in Brazil.

8. Argentina's star duo

The best Jewish World Cup duo of all time was undoubtedly José Pékerman and Juan Pablo Sorin, head coach and captain respectively of Argentina's 2006 quarter-finalists. Left-back Sorin was heavily involved in probably the greatest team goal in World Cup history during a 6-0 blitz of Serbia and Montenegro. Another Jewish player, Walter Samuel, was controversially left out of the squad, allegedly over a dispute with Pékerman.

9. Socceroos' saviour

Soccer has traditionally been the fourth-most popular football code in Australia behind Aussie rules, Rugby Union and Rugby League, but it underwent a revolution thanks to Hungarian refugee, Haganah fighter and Westfield founder Frank Lowy. Australia's second richest man became chairman of the country's football federation in 2003, and the national team qualified for the finals in 2006, 2010 and 2014. The 2006 vintage, featuring Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill and Mark Schwarzer, made it to the last 16.

10. The next chapter

World Cup 2014 is sure to produce some special moments, but will there be something of extra significance for Jews? Will Colombia progress to the second stage? Can Balotelli make an impact? Or could Juwon Oshaniwa and Austin Ejide, players for FC Ashdod and Hapoel Beer Sheva, dare to repeat Paintsil's flag-waving display when their Nigerian side faces Iran in Group F?

Last updated: 12:55am, June 15 2014