TEL AVIV (Mar. 23)
Israel and Egypt met in their first team sports event Sunday, when they fought to a 17-17 draw in the preliminary rounds of the World Handball Championship in Salzburg, Austria.
But the contest was marred by deliberate slurs on Israel by the Egyptian players, who apparently regarded the game as an extension of the wars Egypt has fought against the Jewish state.
Their hostility was manifest by statements allegedly made by Egyptian team members during pregame interviews with a Cairo weekly publication, which were reprinted Monday in the Israeli daily Hadashot.
The Israeli news media made much of two incidents, which amounted to insults by the Egyptians.
When a band played the national anthems of both countries before the start of the game, some Egyptian team members refused to stand for “Hatikvah.” Those who got to their feet deliberately stood with their backs to the Israeli flag.
At the end of the match, when an Israeli fan ran onto the court waving an Israeli flag, an Egyptian player seized it and threw it to the ground.
Israeli and Egyptian sports figures have met on an individual basis since their countries signed a peace treaty in 1979. Gilad Bloom, the Israeli Davis Cup contender, appeared at a tennis match in Cairo last October.
Egyptian players have participated in the Israeli Open Squash Championships in Herzliya. And wounded Israeli and Egyptian war veterans met in a wheelchair basketball match at the Stoke Mandeville Games for the Disabled in England.
But the handball tournament in Salzburg was the first team competition between Israel and an Arab country.
‘REVENGE FOR ALL ARAB VICTIMS’
According to the Cairo weekly quoted by Hadashot, the Egyptian team’s management had to call on psychologists to prepare the players to concentrate on the game instead of politics.
One Egyptian player, Faisal Awad, was quoted as saying, “The game is revenge for all the Arab victims who fell in wars against Israel. My mother told me we must beat the Jews.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by 20-year-old Ahmed al-Ud. “For me, the game is like a war, a national duty to beat Israel. Losing to the Israelis would be a defeat, like the defeat in 1967,” he said.
“This is not just a handball game, but a war,” said Omar Saragaldin, 20. And Mohammed Ashur, 25, was angry at the team management for persuading them to play against the Israeli team. He said he was not at peace with himself because the Israelis are murderers, not sportsmen.
Despite the draw, Israel is ahead of Egypt in the competition because of its 23-22 win over Denmark on Saturday.
Israel now advances to the playoffs among the 12 top-ranking teams. Israel ranks third after Denmark and Poland in its four-team group. Egypt is last.
The top three groups will advance to the next stage in Innsbruck, Austria. Israel’s next game will be in Norway later this week.