For Jewish soccer fans, it may appear that there’s not too much to be thrilled about in this year’s World Cup, which begins tomorrow with host nation Russia taking on Saudi Arabia. No US teams means players like Kyle Beckerman and Benny Feilhaber won’t be making an appearance on the pitch. No Italian team means no Mario Balotelli. (To be fair, some of these players may no longer even be on the national teams.) Indeed, it seems there are no Jewish players at all in this year’s competition.
If you’re desperate to find a connection, you could latch onto John Ogu (Nigeria) and Predrag Rajkovic (Serbia), who play for Israeli clubs during the regular season (though neither is likely to be named a starter for their respective countries). Even more desperate for a connection? Ashkan Dejagah, the Iranian player who earlier this year bravely posed with an Israeli counterpart is captaining Iran’s squad — despite calls from some his fellow countrymen that he be kicked off the team.
Ultimately, there’s really only one great Jewish story, and it’s one of the reasons I have my money on Colombia. Its coach, Argentine José Pékerman, actually started his career at the local Maccabi Jewish youth club in Entre Rios, north of Buenos Aires. But the other reason I bet on Colombia is its superstar player James Rodríguez and the fantastic way the team played (under Pékerman, by the way) in the last World Cup. In other words, if you love soccer, it really doesn’t matter if there’s a Jewish angle. All that matters is “the beautiful game.”
That’s why 10,000 Israelis and thousands of other Jews from across the world, predominantly from South America, are converging on Russia. They’re there for one of the most exciting sporting competitions, one that comes along only every four years. While they’re there, who knows, they may partake in one of the many Jewish activities being planned by local rabbis and communities. But they’re there for the love of the game — the same reason I’ll be watching the competition. A Jewish angle is just a cherry on top of what’s already one great sundae.