Israel did not qualify for the World Cup. They’ve only managed to do so once, in 1970. Yet, after Israelis bought around 12,000 tickets for these finals in Brazil, they are the most present nation by percentage of population, and the second highest fan contingent of non-qualifiers, despite being just 8 million in total.
More Israelis bought tickets for these finals than Italians. Italy, the 2006 World Cup winners, one of the historic football nations. The noise exhibited in the Manaus win over England emanated as much from second or third generation Brazilians, Americans and Australians as it did actual Italians (and, of course, people who just don’t like England).
Israelis are not sporting their national team shirts – why would they, their team isn’t involved – but they are not just football tourists looking to catch a glimpse of their Premier League and Liga heroes.
“Yes, plenty have come to see Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo,” Mariano, from Tel Aviv told me as he ordered seven Caipirinhas from a street stall by the arches of Lapa on Tuesday night.
“We’re not wearing colours, but we are all here to support Argentina. It’s where we are from.”
There are around 70,000 Argentine Jews in Israel, a figure which rises consistently with time.
Argentina is behind only the United States and Canada in terms of Americas immigration to the Holy Land, and comprises the largest Latin community in Israel.
The relationship between the two nations is chequered to say the least. Argentina was open to Jewish immigration until the military junta restricted their entry; that led to many existing Argentine Jews exercising the right of return.
Once Argentina was liberated from fascism, some returned, but the stream continued for economic as well as religious reasons.
There remains a close relationship between the nations – after all, Argentina was one of the first to recognise Israel as a state in 1949 – and as such it is perhaps unsurprising that many are in Brazil.
“Some are supporting Brazil,” Mariano admitted. “Yes there are a lot of Jews in Sao Paulo, but when you’re from a country like Israel, you tend to look to teams who play the best football.
“Also, a lot of people just want to watch the World Cup. We have the money to come, and many of us love South America, so why not?”
Israelis are famous travellers, with many going backpacking after completing military service. Mariano had been to Brazil before, and his friends had all spent time across Latin America.
“People have a certain idea about us, but we are friendly, open people,” he added. “Things are complicated in our region, but at least we are a free country surrounded by extremists.
“But we have our own extremists too, which makes things complicated internally. Me and my friends are not religious.
“Here, we can get along with everyone. You are English and Egyptian, I am Israeli and Argentine, and here we can be friends. Maybe that is why so many of us have come.” (By Eurosport) Eurosport’s Reda Maher is on location in Brazil for the duration of the 2014 World Cup
photo: Mexico and Israel fans mingle during a pre-World Cup friendly