Hirshey: England, Or Israel?

David Hirshey writes regularly for Deadspin about soccer.

In every man's life, there comes a time when he has to choose sides. Bud or Miller. Emmitt Smith or Mario Lopez. Gay or straight ... we've all been there. But this weekend I faced the most agonizing choice in the history of my soccer fandom. That's right: England vs. Israel.

In other words, the British vs. the Yiddish. Where do I even begin to tell you how divided my loyalties were? For one thing, I was watching the game with my father, who still wants to believe that Rex Grossman is a Jew. And for that matter, David Eckstein, too. It hardly matters that he raised me to be a sick Arsenal fan. Not that they have any English players.

Still, I have steadfastly suffered through England's shite years (approximately the last 40) and have obsessively followed the fortunes of Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard and the rest of the overpaid, underperforming wankers on a weekly basis. Why, I ask my father, should I now forsake the Lion for Zion?

"Because it's the biggest match ever on Israeli soil, " my father explained, "and last I checked you were Jewish."

"It's not like even all of Israel's players are members of the tribe, " I argued, pointing to the stocky black teenager Toto Tomuz wearing the white and blue. "You never know," my father said, "they used to say the same thing about Sammy Davis Jr."

(more after the jump)

Jewish or not, Toto scared the bejeesus out of England— at least for the first 10 minutes. A 19-year-old Nigerian-born striker whose parents emigrated to the Promised Land when he was three years old, Toto twice wriggled his way behind the England defense only to put the ball wide. "If he had scored, " my father said, somewhat deliriously, "he would have had a lifetime seat at our seder table."

You could forgive my father's euphoria. Though they were both tied with seven points in their qualifying group for the European Championships, the gulf between England and Israel in skill, strength and salaries was as wide as the West Bank. But for those glorious opening minutes, Israel forgot that they hadn't qualified for any major tournament since 1970 and went for the throat. With West Ham's Yossi Benayoun orchestrating the attack, Israel pushed forward, stoked by the deafening chants of 42,000 fans who were in a particularly buoyant mood, given the tension in their country. Perhaps they were celebrating the recent news that Hooters was opening a branch this summer in Tel Aviv.

Of course, it was only a matter of time until England's nerves settled, and they cranked up their offense. And what an offense it was! A slow, deliberate buildup that could put you to sleep before they crossed the midfield line. With Israel packing 10 men behind the ball and turning their penalty area into an impregnable fortress, England opted to hoof speculative balls down the left flank to Aaron Lennon or over the top to Andy Johnson. England's latest tactical genius Steve McLaren had counted on Lennon's and Johnson's speed to burn the Israelis, but aside from a few nervous moments Israel's stout defense was equal to the challenge. Bolton's Ben Haim did particularly heroic work in front of goal, essentially turning Rooney into his bee-yatch and causing the England striker to lose his legendary sangfroid. Rooney and Ben Haim exchanged trash talk and shoves, but the Israeli hard man left the field with his swingers intact.

England's reputation, however, was in tatters, as the game ended in a double bagel 0-0, marking the fourth consecutive match in which England has failed to score and causing their supporters in the crowd to serenade McClaren with a chorus of "What a load of rubbish." Of course, it could have been worse. As Pino Zahavi, Israel's answer to Scott Boras, predicted before the game, "If England stumbles in Israel ... they will drink McClaren's blood."

Well, each to his own. My father and I celebrated Israel's moral victory by drinking a couple of Stellas and making a date for yesterday's U.S.—Ecuador friendly in which Benny Feilhaber was making his first start for the national team.

Go, you Yids!