Israeli players on the country's under-21 team celebrate a victory in the UEFA European U21 Championship playoff round against the Republic of Ireland at Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv, Sept. 27, 2022. (Photo/JTA-Seb Daly-Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Israeli players on the country's under-21 team celebrate a victory in the UEFA European U21 Championship playoff round against the Republic of Ireland at Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv, Sept. 27, 2022. (Photo/JTA-Seb Daly-Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Israel’s soccer team is headed to the Olympics for the first time since 1976

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(JTA) — Israel’s national soccer team qualified for the Olympics for the first time in nearly 50 years by making a surprising run at a major under-21 European tournament.

Israel lost to England on July 5 in the semifinals of the UEFA European U-21 Championship, a biennial contest among the continent’s best under-21 teams. But three days earlier, after a win in the playoff round against Georgia, Israel earned a place at the 2024 Paris Olympics alongside just 15 other countries.

Soccer at the Olympics is an under-23 tournament, although each team is allowed three roster spots for players older than 23. Israel has competed in UEFA, Europe’s umbrella soccer association, since the 1990s because they were previously booted from the Asian Football Confederation.

“This tournament brought historic achievements to Israeli soccer. We reached the quarterfinal, then the semifinal, and we qualified for the Olympics for the first time in 47 years,” Moshe Shino Zuares, the chairman of the Israel Football Association, told Israel’s Kan broadcaster after the loss to England. “I am proud of each and every one of our players, our professional staff and the whole delegation for smashing every possible ceiling and restoring confidence in Israeli soccer.”

The under-21 team’s success follows the Israeli under-20 team’s Cinderella run to a third-place finish at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Argentina last month. That squad beat South Korea 3-1 in a third-place game at the end of a thrilling stretch that included wins over Uzbekistan, Japan and powerhouse Brazil.

“Soccer in Israel is improving, we have a good generation, and the people understand what we can do,” midfielder El Yam Kancepolsky told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency during that tournament.

Gabe Friedman
Gabe Friedman

Gabe Friedman is the features and global editor at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.