It is a waste of time to even try to avoid World Cup fever in Israel. It’ll get you wherever you are. One would have to be completely culturally oblivious to remain unaware that it will be Holland vs. Spain playing in the final game on Sunday. The hum of the South African vuvuzelas is inescapable and there is a soccer fan in nearly every household.
The vast majority, of course, are men. Soccer is considered the ultimate macho sport among Israelis, as it is in most of the world. Watching the important games on huge flat screen television sets is a male bonding ritual — involving drinking and spitting sunflower seed shells. Yes, of course, there are some women who love watching the games (of course, those who take an intense interest are suspected of simply enjoying watching fit and muscular men run around in skimpy shorts.)
But mainly, just as there are football widows in the U.S., there are soccer widows during World Cup season in Israel. They are sought-after consumers.
Television channels that are not showing the games run marathons of “Desperate Housewives” and chick flicks like “When Harry Met Sally.” Special sales are held for them at shopping malls and major retailers. IKEA often looks like a sorority gathering during World Cup games.
Much of the lack of interest from women stems from the fact that from a young age, they aren’t encouraged to play the game. For those of us from the United States, it takes a major cultural adjustment to view soccer as manly pursuit. In the States, real men play AMERICAN football or hockey or basketball. Despite the inroads it has made into U.S. culture, soccer remains the more effete preppy, less violent sport.
The flip side of its inferior status is that America, it is perfectly socially acceptable, even mainstream, for girls to play soccer. I played on a soccer team in high school.
My Israeli son thinks that is hilarious.
While Israeli women’s basketball has made impressive progress, it remains a challenge to convince Israeli girls and women to overcome the gender bias and begin kicking a soccer ball. My town’s school system has an active and competitive girls basketball program, but no soccer. In elementary school, there are a few brave and intrepid girls who are willing to play alongside the boys. But by junior high, they disappear.
In 1997, I covered the tryouts for the first Israeli women’s national soccer league. I remember the excitement among the women who were at the team tryouts I visited. Sadly, since then, I have heard little about it. The national team still exists, but it is struggling for survival because of lack of interest by investors.
Meanwhile, Israel’s neighbors are catching up. There are reportedly 40 girl’s soccer teams in the West Bank, and last year, the Palestinian Authority’s women’s national soccer team — some of the players wearing hijabs — took the field for the first time.
Perhaps that will awaken the Israeli competitive spirit, and get more girls on the field.