Israel celebrate Mexico 70 milestone

  • It's 50 years since Israel made their FIFA World Cup™ debut

  • They came close to shock upsets against Sweden and Italy

  • “The national team for Mexico 1970 was and is Israel's best ever."

Along with fellow debutants El Salvador and Morocco, Israel were just making up the numbers in the eyes of many onlookers at the FIFA World Cup Mexico 1970™. The reality, however, proved to be quite different.

Fifty years ago today, Israel made their bow on the grandest of all football stages. It was a monumental leap from playing in local competitions to rubbing shoulders with the world’s greats.

"We came to Mexico and our hearts trembled,” said left-sided flanker Shmuel Rosenthal. “We were anonymous players who saw the World Cup stars, led by Pele the great in action only in cinemas, in diaries or on 8mm black and white film.”

The warm sun of Puebla greeted the players for the second match of Mexico 1970, and while Uruguay ran out 2-0 victors, Israel displayed glimpses of what was to come.

A few days later they drew 1-1 with Sweden, who had been World Cup Finalists just 12 years earlier. Israel were still in the hunt to progress going into the final group match, and a scoreless draw against the Luigi Riva-led Italy attack spoke volumes for any naysayers who believed quality existed only in the traditional European and South American strongholds.

“We were a national team, but played as a club,” said the team’s legendary goalscorer and heartbeat Mordechai Spiegler. “We took away ego, worked hard.”

It was a case of sixth time lucky for Israel when they qualified for Mexico 1970. Then competing in the Asian confederation – they were Asian champions in 1964 – they edged Australia 2-1 on aggregate thanks to a crucial strike in Sydney from that man Spiegler to reach the World Cup.

However, Israel's star man's most memorable career goal came in the match against Sweden in Toluca. Tom Turesson netted for the Europeans just after half-time, but Spiegler fired home his much-heralded strike from 20 metres.

"It has been 50 years since the 1970 Mexico games and we are all excited when we remember them,” said goalkeeper Itzhak Vissoker. “This World Cup was amazing in every way.

“Beyond the world's great interest, here in Israel they talked only about football and the national team. The chance of passing a stage was low, especially in the face of rivalries we knew from the newspaper pages.”

Italy's Luigi Riva is stopped by two Israel defenders during their Group 2 match at Mexico 1970 (Photo by Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Italy had their chances to win the final group match, but Spiegler was also presented with enjoyed a golden opportunity, which was saved by goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi.

“In the third game, against Italy, the tension was huge,” said midfielder Itzhak Shum. “A victory and Israel would have ousted Italy from the next stage. It could have been a global sensation. The national team for Mexico 1970 was and is Israel's best ever."

Just ten days later, Gli Azzurri featured in one of the most memorable Finals in World Cup history.

“We stayed in Mexico until the final of the World Cup,” said defender Zvi Rosen. “On one of the free mornings after being ousted from the tournament, we strolled in the huge Mexico City market and met the Italian national team players, who said that the game against our defence was a nightmare for them.”

Israel fell narrowly shy of reaching Italy 1990 losing 1-0 on aggregate against a swaggering Colombia, piloted by midfield genius Carlos Valderrama in his pomp. But the nation’s greatest football achievement remains the indelible mark made by the Blue and Whites at Mexico 1970.