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World Cup 2014: Players With Jewish or Israeli Connections

June 12, 2014 By:
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Mario Balotelli (left), Italy's scoring machine, has a surprising connection to Judaism. Photo from Wikimedia.

Soccer fans looking for a team with Jewish or Israeli connections to root for in the 2014 World Cup are in luck. Well, sort of.

The pickings may be slim, but there are a few options:

Though the Israeli national team fell well short of qualifying for this year’s games, hosted by tournament favorites Brazil, Israel will have two pseudo-representatives: Goalkeeper Austin Ajide and defender Juwon Oshaniwa, both native Nigerians who play for Hapoel Be’ersheva and Ashdod of the Israeli premier league respectively, are expected to compete on Nigeria's national team.

Think it’s a far-fetched connection? It’s not the first time the Israeli league has been represented in the World Cup by players on African national teams.

Ghanaian defender John Paintsil, a former player for Hapoel Tel Aviv, waved an Israeli flag on the field following both of Ghana's goals on the way to a 2-0 victory against the Czech Republic in the 2006 World Cup. Perhaps Ajide or Oshaniwa will have a similar trick up their sleeves.

Nigeria is a long shot to progress beyond the group stages. The team opens its quest for glory against Iran on June 16. Coincidentally, the Nigerian opening match occurs on the same evening that the United States opens against none other than — wait for it — Ghana.

Speaking of the United States, the Americans feature one Jewish player in this World Cup: holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman. He is not a regular starter for the United States, but as the Americans face a grueling schedule in a hot Brazilian climate, bench players such as Beckerman will likely figure into coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s plans.

Another player worth watching is Mario Balotelli, Italy’s prolific scorer who plies his trade for A.C. Milan in the Italian league. Balotelli was born into a family of Ghanaian immigrants in Palermo — yes, Ghana again — before being adopted and raised by a local Jewish family. Silvia Balotelli, the matriarch of the family, is the daughter of Holocaust survivors.

Italy will begin its attempt at winning a fifth World Cup title with a match against England on June 16.

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