In the over 60 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, sports have played an increasingly important role in the development of the country both at home and on the international stage. Despite its small population, Israel’s athletes such as tennis star Shahar Pe’er and soccer player Yossi Benayoun regularly make an impact and a name for themselves. Israeli sports teams have also found success abroad, most notably the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club, which has established itself as one of the best teams in Europe over the last decade. Israel’s national teams have also been improving, with the soccer and basketball teams achieving impressive results.
Outside of the professional arena, sports have always been a significant pastime for hundreds of thousands of Israelis. With miles of beautiful coastline on the country’s western border it’s no surprise that an estimated half of the population swim regularly. The many months of warm weather encourage Israelis to enjoy outdoor sports, and a competitive attitude ensures youngsters become involved in dozens of different sporting activities from a young age.
Basketball and soccer
Soccer just edges basketball as the most popular sport in Israel. The professional soccer league, with 12 teams in the top Premier League division, is followed closely in the media and attracts crowds of up to 20,000 people at games. After half a decade at the top, Maccabi Haifa’s era of unrivaled success appears to be waning, with Betar Jerusalem taking over, having won the league championship for the first time in nine years in May 2007.
Israeli clubs continue to outdo themselves in European competition. Israeli clubs continue to outdo themselves in European competition. Over the past few years Maccabi Haifa has performed the best, reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions League in 2003 and 2010.
Israeli soccer players are having an increasing impact on the world stage, with 20 Israeli soccer players currently playing in top European clubs. In the summer of 2007, Israel captain Yossi Benayoun moved to Liverpool FC and defender Tal Ben Haim to Chelsea, while in January 2008, Tamir Cohen joined Bolton Wanderers.
In basketball, Maccabi Tel Aviv are the kings of Israel, winning nearly every league championship. In recent years, however, new challengers have arisen. In Europe, Maccabi scored several achievements in the Euroleague Final Four, having reached the final in 2006 and 2008 and won the competition in 2004 and 2005. In 2009, former Maccabi player Omri Casspi made history as the first Israeli to play in the NBA, after he was drafted by the Sacramento Kings.
Hapoel Jerusalem has also had success in the European arena, competing in the ULEB Cup, a competition it won in 2005. The national basketball team has also established itself as a force to be reckoned with. In 2009 it again qualified for the Biannual EuroBasket championship, an event it has participated in since 1993.
Women’s basketball is popular in Israel, with two teams – Elitzur Ramle and Anda Ramat Hasharon – regularly battling for the league title. The two also compete in European competition. Female player Shay Doron has, in fact, made one of the biggest impacts of all Israelis after she became the first Israeli to play professional basketball in America in 2007, playing for the New York Liberty in the WNBA.