Anyone who has ever looked at a map or a globe will know Israel is a country boarded by Lebanon to the north, Syria and Jordan to the east, Egypt to the south and the Mediterranean Sea to the west or to put it another way Israel most assuredly is not in Europe.
Have you ever wondered then why Israeli club sides and the Israel national team compete in UEFA competitions?
Before I begin to explain why a nation in the Middle East competes in European competitions I should start off by saying Israel isn’t actually the only nation partially or entirely located outside of Europe affiliated with UEFA. Russia, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia are all transcontinental Eurasian nations, meaning parts of them are in Europe and other parts are in Asia.
Meanwhile geographically speaking Cyprus isn’t actually located in Europe at all but the country does have strong cultural ties to Europe and is a member of the EU.
Certainly none are as brazenly outside of Europe as Israel which is one of only five nations to have ever changed confederations over the years.
Football is the most popular sport in Israel having been introduced to the region by Europeans in the early 1900s with the first official football match in modern-day Israel taking place in 1912.
At the end of the First World War Palestine came under a British mandate during which time football continued to grow. In 1929 the Eretz Israel mandatory Palestine FA was founded and became full FIFA members. At the end of the Second World War Britain pulled out of Palestine and put the region under the control of the United Nations.
In 1947 the first Israeli-Palestine conflict known as the War of Independence to Israelis and Nakba or catastrophe to the Palestinians broke out. Israel won and declared independence and the Eretz Israel mandatory Palestine FA and national team were replaced by the new Israeli FA and Israel national team who played their first game against the USA olympic team in September 1948.
Israel have completed in FIFA World Cup qualification since 1950, qualifying for the finals for the only time in 1970, where they drew with Sweden and Italy but lost to Uruguay meaning they went out in the group stages.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) was only founded in 1954 with Israel among the 19 inaugural founding members. For the next 20 years Israel would remain AFC members and reasonably successful ones at that. They hosted and won the 1964 Asian Cup having been losing finalists against South Korea in 1956 and 1960, later finishing third at the 1968 finals in Iran.
However Israel’s participation in the Asian Football Confederation rarely went smoothly as tensions in the region all too often spilt over into the sport.
Israel advanced through every qualifying round for the 1958 World Cup as Turkey, Indonesia and Sudan all boycotted their games against them. In response FIFA ruled that no team could qualify for the World Cup without playing at least one match with the exception of the hosts and the reigning champions so they setup a two-legged qualifier between Israel and Wales which Wales won 4-0 on aggregate.
The boycotts carried out by the Asian nations but not being replicated by a European nation was a very early precursor of what was to come down the line. Even Israel’s sole trophy the 1964 Asian Cup was tainted by boycotts. Only 11 of the 16 eligible nations had attempted to qualify for the finals after Israel were selected as the host nation resulting in a significantly weakened competition.
These sporting stands taken against the state of Israel were part of the wider Arab League boycott of Israel which involved stopping all trade with Israel, boycotting trade with companies who traded with Israel and even boycotting companies who did business with other companies who traded with Israel.
The early to mid 1970’s was a time of particularly high tensions in the region. In 1967 Israel displayed its military might in comparison to the rest of the region in the aptly named Six-Day War taking control of plenty of land in the process. Then in 1973 Israel successfully defended its new territories in the Yom Kippur War meaning animosity with Israel was just about at boiling point at this time.
Going into the 1974 Asian Games both Kuwait and North Korea boycotted their second round group games against Israel so the AFC awarded Israel 2-0 wins in those games. That gave Israel a safe passage to the final where they lost to Iran but Kuwait weren’t done there.
They put forward a proposal to have Israel excluded from all AFC competitions to the Asian Football Confederation in 1974 in which all affiliated members could vote on. 17 nations voted in favour of the proposal, 13 voted against it and 6 nations abstained meaning Israel became homeless in international football.
They would spend almost 20 years in exile.
Israel still competed in AFC and Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) qualification for the 1978 World Cup before being placed in UEFA qualifying for the 1982 World Cup and OFC qualifying for the 1986 and 1990 World Cups.
In 1991 Israeli clubs were allowed to compete in European competitions such as the European Cup the UEFA Cup and the Cup Winners Cup and Israel went through UEFA qualifiers for the World Cup for the first time since 1982 in 1992.
In 1994 having gone 20 years without a confederation Israel became full UEFA members. Since becoming full UEFA members Israel haven’t qualified for either the World Cup or the European Championships although they have had some significant one-off achievements such as a shock win against France and a 5-0 defeat of of Austria.
Israel began the inaugural 2018/19 UEFA Nations League in Group C, the third tier of the four tier tournament, where a second place finish behind Scotland saw them win promotion to Group B next season.
Israeli club sides have fared slightly better with Maccabi Haifa having made the Champions League group stages on a couple of occasions meanwhile Hapoel Tel Aviv made the quarterfinals of the UEFA Cup in 2002 where they were beaten 2-1 on aggregate by AC Milan.
Friendlies against the Israeli national team continue to spark anger with Argentina forced to call off their proposed meeting in 2018. With tensions in the region rarely calm it is easy to see why The Blue and Whites have become UEFA members.