Israel Signs Deal with South American Soccer Federation

Israel Signs Deal with South American Soccer Federation

Compact paves the way for elite international competition on the pitch.

Israel's under-20 men's soccer teams celebrates winning third place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in La Plata, Argentina, June 11, 2023 // Photo Credit: Marcio Machado/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images/JTA
Israel's under-20 men's soccer teams celebrates winning third place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in La Plata, Argentina, June 11, 2023 // Photo Credit: Marcio Machado/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images/JTA

(JTA) — Israel’s soccer association has signed a cooperation agreement with South America’s soccer confederation that opens the door for it to compete in the continent’s elite tournaments, such as the Copa America, alongside soccer powerhouses like Argentina and Uruguay.

Israel currently plays in the Union of European Football Associations and has given no indication that it is about to bolt that organization to become a member of the South American association, called CONMEBOL. But in the agreement, announced on Thursday, Israel and CONMEBOL pledged to increase collaboration in soccer development, coaching, refereeing, and women’s and youth football programs.

More significantly, it could pave the way toward Israel’s future participation in the South American federation’s prestigious tournaments, the Copa America and the Copa Libertadores. The Copa America tournament, which is one of the most-watched soccer competitions in the world, typically includes two teams from FIFA’s other soccer federations. Japan and Qatar both competed in 2019, for example.

“I very much hope that the Israeli national team will be part of one of the major tournaments organized by CONMEBOL, perhaps even the Copa America,” Israel Football Association chairman Moshe Zuares told The Athletic.

“This is a particularly exciting, historic moment, an international breakthrough for the Football Association,” Zuares said in a press release. “We signed an agreement for cooperation with giant powers, world champions, countries where football is a cornerstone, a culture.”

The agreement has been in the works since a visit to Israel by CONMEBOL President Alejandro Dominguez in September, shortly before Hamas’ Oct. 7 invasion launched the ongoing war in Gaza.

“During my visit to Israel, I learned how much you love the game,” Dominguez said during the meeting, according to Israeli media. “Football connects cultures, no matter how great the geographical distance, and can contribute to peace.”

The agreement is a rare bright spot for Israeli athletics in the six months since the Israel-Hamas war began, during which Israeli athletes have faced backlash and, in the case of one Israeli soccer player in Turkey, brief police detention.

In one incident that occurred at a qualifying game for the Copa Libertadores tournament, fans were ejected for accusing Israel of genocide as their team, a century-old Chilean soccer squad founded by Palestinian immigrants, qualified for the tournament’s main group stage. FIFA has also faced calls from a number of countries — including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — to ban Israel from international competition.

The pressure has come surrounding other sports as well. Leah Goldstein, a record-setting endurance cyclist and Israeli military veteran, was disinvited from a Canadian International Women’s Day event after the organizers drew criticism; the event was eventually cancelled. In international hockey, Israeli teams were briefly banned from an international youth world championship.

Israel has played in the Union of European Football Associations for three decades, and has not left that organization, according to the Athletic. Until 1974, Israel was a member of the Asian soccer confederation, but was expelled following a campaign by Arab states in the wake of the Yom Kippur War the previous year.

Israel’s national soccer program has enjoyed a string of success in the past year, and will be on the world stage this summer in the country’s first Olympics appearance since 1976. Israel is also coming off a third-place finish in its first-ever appearance in last year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup and a semi-finals appearance in the UEFA European U-21 Championship.

Israel’s surprising run in the U-20 tournament, which was hosted by Argentina, galvanized South American Jews and drew scores of Jewish and Israeli fans. The tournament had been moved to Argentina after the initial host, Indonesia, objected to Israel’s participation.

Argentina, which won the 2022 World Cup, has a history of particularly warm relations with Israel’s national team — having played friendly matches against it in 1986, 1990 and 1994. In 2018, however, Argentina canceled a match against Israel after facing pressure from the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. CONMEBOL also includes two-time World Cup winner Uruguay, as well as five-time winner Brazil and Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela.

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