Soccer was a major part of my childhood and in every team I was on, there would be a competition over who received jersey number 9, the same number belonging to superstar soccer player, Mia Hamm, a role model for young girls everywhere. And who can forget the infamous moment when Brandi Chastain took off her jersey, revealing her sports bra (an action considered scandalous back then) in celebration at the first Women’s World Cup in 1991? Neither Hamm nor Chastain are Jewish; however, they did have a Jewish teammate who helped them win the World Cup, Debbie Belkin (also known as Debbie Rademacher).
The Women’s World Cup is quickly gaining a large audience, but the equivalent for men is far more popular. Founded in 1930, the Federation Internationale de Football Association (more commonly known as FIFA or just the World Cup), involves 32 teams and is enacted every four years in different locations. Unfortunately, during the World Cup, the world’s most famous soccer player, arguably the most famous athlete, did not play. He happens to be Jewish. Any guesses? It’s none other than David Beckham. Though he is often shown wearing a cross, Beckham inherits his Jewishness from his mother’s side, and he practices Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism.
Regardless of Beckham’s retirement, there were still quite a few players with Jewish and Israeli connections in this year’s tournament. Even though Israel’s team did not qualify, according to Amishai Gottlieb of the Jewish Exponent, players on the teams of Ghana and Nigeria represent the Holy Land. John Paintsil of Ghana formerly played for Hapoel Tel Aviv; he even waved an Israeli flag after scoring. From Nigeria, Austin Ajide and Juwon Oshaniwa played in Israeli Premier League’s Hapoel Be’ersheva and Ashdod. Italy has Mario Balotelli, who was adopted by Jewish parents.
Closer to home during the 2010 World Cup, the United States’ team held the largest group of Jewish players in the team’s history: Jonathan Bornstein, Benny Feilhaber and Jonathan Spector. During this year’s tournament, none of these players made it on the team; however, there is still a Jewish representation in midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who played a major role in the United States’ victory over Ghana.
The number of Jewish players is sure to increase, both in the Women’s and Men’s World Cup. Join us for the 2018 World Cup in Russia!
Deborah Lewis recently graduated from the University of California, Irvine with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a minor in Jewish Studies. Starting this fall, she will be pursuing a Master’s in Library and Information Science with an emphasis in Archival Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.