Israel has qualified for exactly one FIFA World Cup, back in 1969. The Israelis have since failed to establish a presence on the global stage, depriving their fans of quality soccer and something else: A chant. “El El Is-rael! El El Is-rael!” Rise up Israel!
“It pisses me off,” Ilya Shtulman said.
That’s why Shtulman plans to make sure his teammates recite that mantra together, their arms interlocked, before their upcoming matches. Shtulman is a player/coach for Israel’s team in the Philadelphia International Unity Cup, a World Cup-style men’s soccer tournament designed to connect and fortify the multitudinous immigrant communities spanning the region. Israel kicks things off Aug. 5 at 10 a.m. against Kenya at Ramp Playground, 3300 Solly Ave.
The Israeli team is composed of 22 players, most of whom have some connection to Israel or Judaism. There are American Jews. There are Russian Jews, Israeli Jews and Russian/Israeli Jews. There are some players as young as 19 and others in their mid-40s. The team is simultaneously heterogeneous and homogeneous, united by a common theme: The flag on their chests.
“To be able to play under the banner for one flag is key to having a really cohesive team,” Shtulman said. “That shows on the pitch.”
Mayor Jim Kenney implemented the inaugural Unity Cup in 2016, and the tournament has since grown in popularity and participants. The number of teams jumped from 32 to 48 by 2017, and 52 teams, including 51 nations and Puerto Rico, will compete this season.
“The Unity Cup truly is an amazing opportunity for Philadelphia to celebrate its cultural diversity and encourage our residents to explore our city’s many cultures,” Kenney said in a statement. “The Unity Cup showcases the respect, cooperation, and camaraderie that makes Philadelphia so special.”
The tournament will conclude Oct. 13 with a championship game at Talen Energy Stadium — home of the Philadelphia Union — in Chester. The inaugural championship was held at Citizens Bank Park and last year’s was at Lincoln Financial Field. PIUC director Bill Salvatore said about 2,500 fans attended that game.
“Three years ago, I had no idea we had a Bhutanese community in the city. I didn’t know where Bhutan was on the map,” Salvatore said. “Now you see 52 unique populations represented. You get to go into the communities and talk to them at games and hear different languages. … You can find out where to get good Israeli cuisine or Liberian food.”
The teams have been practicing and playing friendly games for the past six weeks. Salvatore said he gets photos every Monday of teams interacting with one another; Shtulman recently sent him a photo of Israel with the Togo team.
“He said, ‘When would Israel and Togo play on any soccer stage?’” Salvatore said.
Israel’s team debuted last season. The unit went 1-2-0, falling short against Haiti and Sierra Leone before ending its run with a victory over Cambodia. Shtulman attributed last year’s sluggish start to a lack of connectivity and discipline, but that won’t be the case this year, he said.
The team is running a 4-2-3-1 formation, with striker Roy Schemesh stationed up top. He won’t be the only player tasked with scoring, though. Instead of playing a kick-and-run style, where defenders and midfielder send long passes across the field with hopes of one forward catching the ball and shooting, Israel will look to develop chances through nuanced, patient passing.
“If there isn’t an opportunity to pass it forward, we want to pass it backward as opposed to always pushing it forward,” Shtulman said. “The difference between amateur teams and teams that are more solid and trust each other and have played together is that they can push the ball back. … Pushing the ball forward tires players quickly and they can really get caught on a fast break. “
Shtulman said he doesn’t plan on spending much time on the pitch; instead, he’ll be coaching from the sideline. His fellow player/coach Tamir Levy, an attacking midfielder, will start and be the leader on the field. Levy is an adept passer and ball-handler, but his strength is his in-game intelligence, Shtulman said.
Israel is competing in Group L, along with Serbia, Kenya and Vietnam. Teams generally need to win two of three games in the first round — the group stage — to advance to the knockout round. Knockout round games begin with the playing of the two teams’ respective national anthems.
Shtulman wants to take things one game at a time, but he can’t help but look ahead. He knows the words to “Hatikvah.” He’s going to make sure everybody else does, too.
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