Soccer on the Sabbath: Top 25 Jews in World Football
Soccer is the world's game, a sport played by millions (perhaps billions) of people around the world.
So it shouldn't come as a surprise that those millions include folks of all kinds: different nationalities, different backgrounds, different colors, different languages and different religious traditions.
So in the midst of the Jewish holiday season (it's kind of like "Awards Season" with slightly more fasting) that includes Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, it only seemed right to take a look back at the top 25 Jews in soccer, both past and present.
Let the festivities begin and happy new year to all! Tekiah!
(Oh, and if you stick with me all the way to No. 25, there's a great video payoff at the end. Promise.)
We'll start things off with a couple of pop-culture icons.
Apparently, Stewart, the comedian and long-time host of The Daily Show was quite the baller back in the day at William & Mary.
And yes, he's a Jew. As if you couldn't tell by the 'fro.
... as is fellow 'fro wearer and former Survivor winner Ethan Zohn.
Zohn won $1 million in the show's third season and went on to co-found Grassroot Soccer, a non-profit organization that raises money and awareness for HIV/AIDS through the beautiful game.
Before becoming a reality-show celebrity, Zohn was a goalkeeper at Vassar College and played professionally for the Hawaii Tsunami and Cape Cod Crusaders of the USL.
He was diagnosed with a rare form of Hodgkin's disease in April 2009, but the disease is now reportedly in remission.
David Beckham is a quarter Jewish. Not too shabby!
The legendary German midfielder/defender is also apparently one-quarter Jewish. His grandmother is his familial connection to the Tribe.
Also apparently a quarter Jewish? Yes, the Dutch Bulldog himself, Edgar Davids.
Alexander Fabian and the members of Hakoah-Vienna in the 1920s
Along with teammates like Max Gold, Richard Fried, Max Gruenwald, Jozsef Gruenfeld, Alois Hess, Moritz Haeusler, and Erno Schwarz among others, Fabian, a native of Hungary, was a member of the famous Austrian club Hakoah-Vienna that was subsequently inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Fabian alone was considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world at the time, and turned in a brilliant performance in 1926 when the club played a 10-game tour in the United States.
Fabian played for the Austrian national side before moving to the U.S. in 1927 to play in the American Soccer League.
Legend has it that in one game in the mid-'20s, Fabian broke his arm.
Shockingly, the rules at the time did not allow substitutions, so Fabian put his arm in a sling and moved up to play forward. Seven minutes later, Fabian scored the winning goal, clinching Hakoah's league title.
That kind of heroism should rate right up up there with Judah and the Maccabees.
Spiegler, a former striker for the Israeli national team during the 1960s and 70s, remains his country's top all-time goal-scorer with 33 tallies in 83 international appearances.
The native of Russia played for Paris Saint-Germain in France and paired with Pelé on the North American Soccer League's New York Cosmos in the 1970s.
He was chosen as the Israeli Player of the Year a record four times.
A former midfielder and current coach, Neeskens is a Dutch Jew who was a member of the Netherlands national side that finished second in both the 1974 and 1978 World Cups. He scored 17 goals in 49 appearances for the Oranje.
His long club career included stops at Ajax, Barcelona and with the New York Cosmos.
Most recently, he was an assistant to Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona and followed Rijkaard to Galatasaray in Turkey when they were fired following the 2007-08 season.
Messing, right, is a former American goalkeeper who gained notoriety while playing for the New York Cosmos alongside players like Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer and Pele.
Though he graduated from Harvard and was a member of the U.S. national team in the early 1970s, Messing was mostly a backup for the star-laden Cosmos.
He did, though, achieve some level of fame by posing nude in the December 1974 issue of Viva Magazine. He was paid $5,000 for the photos.
He went on to achieve more success in the Major Indoor Soccer League from 1978-87 and was a three-time All-Star.
Messing has since become a well respected soccer announcer and hosts MLS Extra Time, a weekly show analyzing Major League Soccer.
Despite being much maligned—at least by me—as a liability, Agoos was a stalwart of the U.S. national team's defense from 1988-2003.
The left-footed back with the pulled back ponytail also won a record five MLS championships—three with D.C. United and two with the San Jose Earthquakes—and was named the 2001 MLS Defender of the Year.
In 2009, he was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
And yes, he's a "Member of the Tribe." Agoos participated in the Maccabiah Games for the U.S. in 1985 and 1989.
Joining "Goose" on the M.O.T. team is former U.S. women's team defender Sarah Whalen (1997-2000), who was a member of the American squad that won the Women's World Cup in 1999 and won silver in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.
Whalen was a defender and forward at the University of Connecticut, where she helped orchestrate one of the biggest upsets in Women's Final Four history, scoring both goals as the Lady Huskies topped previously unbeaten Notre Dame 2-1.
After her success as a U.S. international, Whalen went on to become one of the founding members of the WUSA, where she played for the New York Power for a season and a half before suffering a career-ending knee injury.
Bornstein, 25, along with the mensches on the next two slides, makes up what could be the largest Jewish contingent on a single squad in the U.S. national team’s history.
A native of Southern California, Bornstein made his first appearance in the national colors in 2007 and played in the Americans' final two matches in this summer's World Cup in South Africa.
After graduating from UCLA, he went on to ply his trade at the club level for Chivas USA of Major League Soccer, and was named the 2006 MLS Rookie of the Year and was a member of MLS' Best XI in 2007.
Bornstein was born in 1984 to a Mexican mother and a Jewish father, and though he didn't have a bar mitzvah and doesn’t consider himself to be particularly observant, he did grow up observing Rosh Hashanah and Passover with relatives.
According to Emunah magazine, he says that representing the U.S. in the 2005 Maccabiah Games helped to reinforce his Jewish identity.
“It was an amazing experience. I loved it and not just because I got to play soccer in Israel. It made me realize how fulfilling and enriched Jewish culture really is,” remembers Bornstein.
“I was able to explore my Jewish identity in the Old City, at Masada, at the Dead Sea. I definitely want to return some day.”
Much like Bornstein, Spector, 24, is a real up-and-comer on the U.S. national team's back line.
Though he didn't play a minute at the World Cup in South Africa, Spector was on the sidelines for Bob Bradley's bunch and should be a reliable contributor at the back for years to come.
Signed as a teenager by Manchester United, Spector—who grew up in a Jewish family in a suburb of Chicago—has shown considerable promise during his young professional career overseas.
He spent several years in United's youth program, was loaned out to Charlton for a year and has been with West Ham since 2006.
Feilhaber, another former competitor in the Maccabi Games, is another relative newcomer to the U.S. national team.
The 25-year-old midfielder came on as a substitute in three matches for during this summer's World Cup in South Africa and has compiled 36 caps for the red, white, and blue.
He now plays for AGF Aarhus in the Danish first division.
Feilhaber, a native of Brazil, moved to the U.S. with his family at the age of 6.
His grandfather fled Austria for Brazil in 1938 to escape the Nazi regime, and Benny's close relationship with him has affirmed his connection with Judaism.
“My grandfather was 14 years old when he and his family had to leave all their things behind in Austria. He boarded a ship to Brazil and left everything he ever knew,” says Feilhaber.
“I talk with my grandfather, who still lives in Brazil, often. His story affects my religion as well as how I see the world and my life.”
Feilhaber says that he and Bornstein had a solid connection from the get-go because of their shared religious background.
“When a Jewish holiday comes up,” Bornstein tells Emunah, “we recognize it and talk about it, but we don’t celebrate too many holidays together.”
That’s because Feilhaber spends the Jewish holidays with his family.
“My father is Jewish and I have a connection with Judaism through my father and my grandparents," says Feilhaber. "I know our history as a people and embrace being Jewish myself.”
Rozental was a highly prized youngster during his early playing days in Chile and signed to play with Rangers in Scotland in 1997 at the age of 20.
But an injury cut short his Ibrox career, and Rozental eventually came back to the Western Hemisphere, where he played in MLS for the Columbus Crew in 2006.
He finished his career, though, back overseas, plying his trade in Israel.
Throughout his career, the one-time Chilean player of the year made 27 appearances for his country.
There are plenty of native Israelis who have starred on the pitch as well.
Nir Klinger, for one, is a former player and current manager in the Holy Land.
As the head man at Maccabi Tel Aviv, Klinger won the Israeli championship and two Israel state cups and led the team to the group stage of the 2004-05 UEFA Champions League.
He's currently coaching with Hapoel Be'er Sheva in the Israeli Premier League.
While managing AEL Limassol in Cyprus last fall, an important rivalry game fell on Yom Kippur.
Klinger, who defines himself as a faithful Jew, told the club's management that he and his Jewish assistant would miss the match.
As a player, Klinger—a defender—won 83 caps for his country and split his long club career between Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Nimni is one of Maccabi Tel Aviv's all-time great players.
The midfielder spent most of his club career at Tel Aviv, with stints in Spain and England thrown in for good measure, and captained the Israeli national team for a while while making 80 total appearances.
After he retired in 2008, he went into club management and is currently the GM of Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Tal is another longtime Israeli national teamer—he earned 69 caps over nine years—who has excelled at the club level.
Though he's spent time in England (with Everton and Bolton) and in Spain (with Rayo Vallecano), most of his time has been spent in his home country, where he's won four Israeli league championships, three Israeli Cup titles and one Israeli Player of the Year award.
Now 35, he still plays for Beitar Jerusalem.
An Israeli defender currently plying his trade for West Ham in the English Premier League (on loan from Portsmouth), Ben-Haim has made 56 appearances for his country.
Though he started his career at Maccabi Tel Aviv, the solid back-liner moved to England in 2004, where he's spent time at Bolton, Chelsea, Manchester City and Sunderland before his recent move to Pompey.
Benayoun is probably the top Israeli player in the game right now, plying his trade for defending English Premier League champions Chelsea.
The 30-year-old attacking midfielder has played in the EPL since 2005 and was previously at West Ham and Liverpool before joining the Blues this past offseason.
"The Diamond from Dimona" is also the current captain of the Israeli national team and has made 80 international appearances to date, scoring 23 goals.
The longtime coach in Israel—he led the national side from 2002-06—is now the head man at West Ham in the English Premier League.
After 20 years of coaching in his home country, Grant was lured to the U.K. and Chelsea, where he managed the Blues (under friend and fellow Jew Roman Abramovich) to runner-up finishes in the Premiership and the Champions League in 2008.
He was let go following the season and joined Portsmouth that fall. After a tough season, though, Grant resigned after the team was relegated and he signed a new four-year deal to coach at West Ham.
Grant has said that much of his family died in the Holocaust and that his father—a native of Poland who was deported to Siberia during World War II—had buried his parents, sisters and brothers with his own hands.
Another Jewish longtime coach, Pekerman led Argentina in the 2006 World Cup and has led his home country's youth sides to three FIFA World Youth Championship titles.
Samuel, one of the more solid Argentine defenders in recent years, has made his mark for both club and country.
Now 32, the physical and often rough back has made 55 appearances in the Albiceleste and has spent time at Roma and Real Madrid before venturing in 2005 to Inter Milan, the club he helped lead to the Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia crowns this past spring.
Juan Pablo Sorin
Another defender from Argentina, Sorin was known for his long hair on the pitch, but he was another Jew who made his mark on the game.
The owner of 76 caps—and 12 goals in those matches—he was deadly in the air and dangerous in the attack despite playing mostly as a wing defender.
He played in both the 2002 and 2006 World Cups for Argentina and was the captain of the squad in 2006.
After 15 years as a pro, during which he spent time at huge European clubs like Lazio, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Villareal, Sorin retired from the game in July of 2009.
Daniël de Ridder
Who knew that this young Dutch winger, currently playing for Wigan Athletic in the English Premier League, was a Jew?
Born to a Dutch father and an Israeli mother, the now 26-year-old's professional career has brought him from Ajax to Celta Vigo (Spain) to Birmingham City and to Wigan, where he's now riding the pine for the Latics.
Itay Shechter: The Yarmulke-Goal Guy
Here's the caption from this great YouTube video [sic]:
Shema Yisra-gooooaaalll!! Itay Schechter whips his kippah out of his sock after scoring for Hapoel Tel Aviv against Salzburg in the land of Hitler's birth. Suck on that, Adolf!
Says a Deadspin commenter:
According to this article in the Israeli newspaper Maariv (in Hebrew), people were chanting "Go to the gas chambers" in the first half (as heard by one of the team owners).
According to this interview (sorry, it's in Hebrew) with Schechter the celebration was, however, not a reaction to anti-Semitic chants, as he did not hear any by that point in the game.
He says, however, that afterward (unclear if he means after the game or celebration), he was made aware of the anti-Semitic insults from the stands.
According to him, he was given the kipa by a fan for good luck at the airport, and decided right before the game started to keep it in his sock and take it out if he scored.
So, yes, there were anti-Semitic chants going on (par for the course at European soccer games), but no, the celebration was not a reaction to the fans.
And thus ends Kipa-gate.
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