DUBAI (Reuters) - Fifty years ago this week, a group of mostly blue-collar workers and army conscripts led Israel to its only senior international soccer title, winning the 1964 Asian Cup in front of rapturous home crowds.
The achievements of those amateur players, who would skip work to train for the national team, was part of a golden age of Israeli football that culminated in the country’s solitary World Cup appearance in 1970, yet is largely forgotten at home.
The collective amnesia over the 1964 victory followed the 1973 Middle East war and Israel’s expulsion from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) a year later.
Instead, Israelis now look to Europe, where the country is ranked 36th out of 53 UEFA members, while the 50th anniversary of the Asian Cup win comes days after Palestine qualified for the tournament from which Israel was forced from.
Israel had been Asian Cup runners-up to South Korea in 1956 and 1960 and the same duo were favourites for the 1964 tournament, for which Israel were hosts.
Hong Kong and India were other teams in the final group, which would play a round-robin format, while Arab and many Muslim countries had refused to play Israel following its formation in 1948.
“The players were very excited - for most of us those were our first official appearances in the national team uniforms,” said Itzik Visoker, Israel’s goalkeeper, who was 19 at the time.
For local fans, it was a chance to see the national team against their continental rivals four years before the country’s first television station began regular broadcasts in 1968.
“There was a completely different attitude - even now it’s a young country, can you imagine 50 years back?” said Mordechai Spiegler, 69, Israel’s record international goal scorer.
“We heard a lot about football in the world, but didn’t have a real connection - we could only hear it on the radio. The game was popular, but we knew there were more important issues. To play football, it was not a profession.”
The entire squad played for domestic clubs, with the bulk of the 15 players appearing from three outfits - Maccabi Jaffa, Hapoel Petah Tikva and Hapoel Tel Aviv.
They were a mixture of local and foreign-born Jews, some from families whom had fled Europe before, during and after World War II and the Nazi Holocaust.
Former centre-back Gideon Tish, 75, was born in Israel after his family emigrated from Poland in the early 20th century.
“It was a very difficult time, the family was living in one room - the parents and four brothers,” Tish said.
Most players were manual workers or in the army and they trained three afternoons a week.
“We just got small presents like to go to a restaurant and eat for free,” 70-year-old Bulgarian-born former central defender Moshe Leon said. “We played with the heart, not for the money.”
Israel’s coach, the late Yosef Merimovich, a Cypriot-born Jew, took charge of his first match - a 4-0 defeat to an England under-23 side including future World Cup winner Geoff Hurst - nine days before the tournament.
“He was a wonderful man, very straightforward, one of the idols of Israeli football,” Spiegler said of Merimovich, who died in 2011. “He was somebody for whom the flag meant a lot.”
Against Hong Kong in the tournament’s opening game on May 26, Israel dominated in front of a 25,000 crowd at Tel Aviv’s National Stadium, but struggled to make a breakthrough until Spiegler bundled home with 14 minutes left.
Three days later, Israel beat India 2-0 with Spiegler netting a penalty before Yemen-born forward Yohai Aharoni drifted in from the right wing to finish from close range and delight the 22,000 crowd at Jaffa’s Bloomfield Stadium.
That meant Israel needed just a draw against South Korea on June 3 to be champions and the National Stadium was a 50,000 sell-out. All matches were played in the afternoon as floodlights were not yet available.
“We were confident we were going to win - they were about the same level as we were,” said Tish, a then bus mechanic.
Defensive pair Leon and Tish put Israel 2-0 up by halftime, the former beating several players before finishing from distance and the latter dispatching a 20-metre free-kick.
In between those goals, South Korea had a player sent off and although the outgoing champions pulled a goal back, Israel held on to win 2-1 and spark raucous celebrations.
“It was a carnival, a festival,” said Asher Goldberg, an Israeli football historian who attended Israel’s three matches.
Israel was among the dominant forces in Asian football in the 1960s, winning four straight under-19 championships from 1964 to 1967 and finishing third at the 1968 Asian Cup in Iran.
“It was the first step to get into world football - they (the fans) were very proud, but in those days the football wasn’t so important because we were always busy with the wars,” said Amatsia Levkovich, then a 26-year-old midfielder.
“In my life I’ve passed through seven wars. We still don’t know if there will be another one. It was important to represent the country, to hear Hatikva (the national anthem) in Asia.”
Spiegler said Israel’s senior Asian Cup triumph was the springboard for it to reach the 1970 World Cup, although he was one of only three players along with Visoker and defender David Primo from 1964 to be in what was a youthful squad in Mexico.
Israel led a nomadic football existence following its expulsion from the AFC in 1974 until joining UEFA in 1994.
This exile from football’s regional confederations meant Israel sometimes went four years without a competitive senior fixture, while it did not play a single game in 1982, the year of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.
Israel has not qualified for a major tournament since 1970.
“Now we belong to Europe, I don’t think we have a chance,” said Levkovich, who was Israel’s assistant coach in Mexico, where the team earned draws against Sweden and eventual runners-up Italy and lost 2-0 to semi-finalists Uruguay.
“The level of football in Asia has developed, but it doesn’t belong to us.”
Spiegler said it was not a lack of talent that had prevented Israel from making more of a mark internationally.
“Good players are talking football but they don’t bring it to the field, they don’t know the difference between individual and collective sport,” said Spiegler, who emigrated to Israel from Russia’s Ural Mountains in 1949 and played for Paris St Germain and New York Cosmos, where Pele was a team mate.
“We were a national team, but played as a club. We took away ego, worked hard.”
Yet despite those memories, the surviving 1964 squad members do not plan to mark the 50th anniversary of their triumph.
“It was a moment of happiness, of glorious celebration, a moment we take with us forever,” added Spiegler.
Reporting by Matt Smith in Dubai; Editing by John O'Brien