Babylon & Beyond

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ISRAEL: Heavy guns on the soccer field

March 27, 2009 |  8:43 pm

Sports fans are anxiously awaiting Saturday night's soccer match between Israel and Greece. Liverpool player and Israeli captain Yossi Benayoun's name has been mentioned on the radio this week almost as often as that of Benjamin Netanyahu, now in the final stages of completing his new government.

It's an important game. If Israel wins, it increases its chances of qualifying for the World Cup, for the first time in 40 years.

Extreme situations call for extreme measures. Seeking extra motivation for their players in advance of the critical game, coaches Dror Kashtan and Moshe Sinai decided to call in a heavy gun.

Ilan Malka isn't your average locker room motivator. He's Col. Ilan Malka to you, commander of the IDF's Givati Brigade.

Earlier this week, Yossi Yehoshua, military reporter for the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, wrote that the coaches had looked for a senior combat officer who had fought in Gaza during the recent military operation to inspire their own troops in advance of the important game. Malka is your guy, they were told. So on Wednesday evening, the senior commander met with the athletes at their Tel Aviv hotel for a motivational pep talk of a different kind.

Combat is hardly a game. But neither field tolerates mistakes, nor gives second chances. Malka spoke of the qualities and spirit required in both situations, issues like personal and national responsibility, opportunity and pride. He described passing among his soldiers preparing for the Gaza operation, conveying to them the feeling that this was an opportunity to prove themselves to the nation. It was our turn in Gaza; now, it's your turn, he said, and told the players to fight like lions: After 40 years, an entire nation is looking at you and expects you to take us to the World Cup.

Channel 10's military reporter Or Heller thought this was a bit much. He offered more over-the-top strategies: In case of an offside, send the air force; for corner free-kicks bring in the Golani; and if Benayoun acts out on that injury again, then this is clearly a job for the paratroopers. And for a penalty? A couple of D-9 Caterpillars will just strip the field. It worked just fine in Jabaliya, he said sarcastically.

"Tell me, have we gone mad?!" he demanded on the evening news Friday. "It's only soccer. And we all know that the only way we're going to be seeing the next World Cup is on television anyway."

— Batsheva Sobelman