Monday, January 12, 2015

  • Monday, January 12, 2015
  • Elder of Ziyon
1958 was a very weird year for World Cup soccer.

In the aftermath of the Suez crisis, Israel had no opponents in the World Cup qualifying rounds within the Africa/Asia group to which it belonged.

First Turkey refused to play Israel. Then Indonesia requested that they play Israel in a neutral country, and FIFA refused, so Indonesia forfeited.

Finally, Sudan forfeited rather than play Israel in the finals .

FIFA was not happy about this so they created a rule that no one could qualify to the World Cup tournament without playing at least one qualifying game.

They drew lots among teams that had been eliminated in the finals of the European qualifiers to see which lucky team would get a second chance to go to the World Cup by playing Israel.(I'm not sure how they decided that only European teams would have a second chance.)

In the end, Wales was Israel's opponent, and it handily defeated Israel for its one and only World Cup appearance, and the only time that all four UK teams (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) qualified.



I'm more interested in something that happened before Wales was chosen as Israel's opponent.

Wikipedia says, without citation:

So a special play-off was created between Israel and the runner-up of one of the UEFA Groups, where the teams played against each other on a home-and-away basis, with the winner qualifying. After Belgium refused, Wales, the runner-up of UEFA Group 4, was the team drawn from the UEFA group runners-up.

Why would Belgium refuse a second chance at World Cup glory?

This story is corroborated by the BBC:

With Fifa unwilling to allow a team into the World Cup finals without playing a match, Jimmy Murphy's Wales - who had finished behind Czechoslovakia in their qualification group - went into the so-called lucky losers' draw with eight other European runners-up to play off against Israel.

Legend has it the Jules Rimet trophy was used for the draw.

Belgium were actually pulled out first - but passed up the opportunity to play.

And from this football site:
Wales were initially eliminated by Czechoslovakia, but after Sudan refused to play Israel for political reasons in their two team group, FIFA decreed Israel could not simply get a bye into the tournament without playing a game. Lots were drawn among the European runners up to find them an opponent, Belgium turning down the opportunity, Wales coming out next. They took on the Israelis and won 2-0 home and away.

Was Belgium so anti-Israel that they refused what would have probably been a shoo-in chance to reach the World Cup?

I can't find anything more on this, if anyone knows more details there might be a fascinating story here.

UPDATE: Allan Draycott points to an article, and adds a theory, that seems more plausible than blaming anti-Israel sentiment.

Things were a lot different in 1958 than today. For one thing, countries had pride. People respected the rules. And the idea of "wild cards" in sports was, as far as I can tell, non-existent.

Here is the additional information:

After failing to qualify from the qualifying stage, Wales benefited from a brilliant bit of international bickering. Belgium were due to play Israel in a qualifying match but promptly refused, and Uruguay (in true hot-blooded Latin-American fashion) refused to accept what they considered a ‘charitable entry’ into the competition. Wales had no such compunctions though, and duly accepted the invitation with open arms after being drawn as the next ‘lucky losers’.

Uruguay, which I was unaware of, turned down the chance for a World Cup berth because they wanted to earn it fair and square. To them, getting in through the backdoor was not an honorable way to enter the championship.

Now, Draycott points out that Belgium and France were very tight friends. France was Israel's greatest ally at the time. Anti-Zionism seems to be unlikely as a reason for Belgium's bailing.

(Update: Ahron Shapiro emailed me with a number of clips showing very close relationships between Belgium and Israel in 1957 and 1958.)

FIFA created the rule that a team must play at least one qualifying game (unless they are the host) for Israel, and only for Israel.

If you care about sportsmanship, one of the worst things you can witness is to see a team refuse to play another. The penalty for doing that, of course, is to lose the game. But when practically every team in a group decides to shun a team, therefore spreading the unsportsmanlike conduct through an entire continent, what would be the most appropriate response?

If you care about sports, it might be to punish the entire grouping by allowing the team they are trying to shun to reach the World Cup.

FIFA, by creating a rule that applied only to Israel, was changing the rules during the game, so to speak. This must have been somewhat controversial. The rule made it appear that the forfeits really weren't losses for the forfeiters, because the team they lost to didn't gain anything. And it is quite possible that Belgium refused to play along with this facade that was meant to make all those forfeits meaningless and that would retroactively reward the Muslim nations for their actions.

So maybe, just maybe, Belgium decided not to be part of this farce in order to tell FIFA that Israel already earned the right to play by the disgraceful behavior of the other Asian teams and they had no right to take that away with an unprecedented playoff.

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