Toto Fiasco

Israel's new star is held up by right tape. Shaul Adar reports

With the Euro 2008 game against England only weeks away and Israel’s top scorer in the qualifying campaign suspended, you might expect that the domestic league’s top striker would be picked to play. But, not for the first time, Israel has shown itself to be very different from the rest of the football world

Toto Tamuz, the 19-year-old Beitar Jerusalem striker, is standing in the middle of a legal battle regarding his nationality. Although he has lived almost all his life in Israel, sees himself as Israeli, speaks fluent Hebrew and was raised as a Jew, he doesn’t hold an Israeli passport. In fact he doesn’t have any nationality. While many other countries are quick to grant nationality on sporting talents born elsewhere, the Israeli authorities are fighting the trend and ­refusing Tamuz’s demands for citizenship.

Tamuz was born in Nigeria, son of Clement Temile, a former Nigeria striker, and came with his parents to Israel 16 years ago. Temile played for a tiny Israeli team but remained in the country even when his playing career, and visa, had ended. At the age of three, Toto moved to live with a team-mate of Temile, so he could go to school, says his father, and was later adopted by Orit Tamuz, an Israeli woman.

Toto’s custody wasn’t strictly legal and it was only in 2005, when he was an up-and-coming football prodigy, that his status was sorted out. Toto became eligible to play for Israel’s Under-21s and the senior team after he received a temporary residency permit from the Interior Office and confirmation from FIFA and UEFA. In this campaign, he scored against Andorra and started the move that led to the goal that secured a valuable point against Russia in Moscow. Fast, strong and direct, he was the natural replacement for the suspended Roberto Colautti as Israel’s central striker.

At the moment, however, Tamuz can’t play for the national team. He refused to extend his temporary residency permit and his lawyers tried to put pressure on the Israel Interior Office to get full citizenship and a passport before the England game. But they were unfazed by his appeal to the high court, widespread media coverage and an online petition signed by 40,000 fans. Tamuz was told that he should take the legal route like any other person in his position – he might expect to be granted Israeli citizenship in about three years.

It is extremely hard for non-Jewish people to get Israeli citizenship and the Interior Office, unwilling to create a precedent and seemingly annoyed by Toto’s media-savvy tactics, choose to be awkward. Like most things in Israel, it turned political. Arcadi Gaydamak, the owner of Beitar Jerusalem (and father of Alexandre, the Portsmouth chairman) was quick to attack the Israeli government. “I can’t understand how they can refuse to grant citizenship to a young person who has no other place than Israel. It is against the Israeli interest,” he said. “I think it’s because I’m the owner of Beitar and I fight for justice. The people in the government have got to understand that Israel is the land of the Jews and not of the police.”

Tamuz is yet to respond, but has kept on saying that he would do anything to play against England. If he would agree to extend his temporary permit, it would be a rare ­opportunity for his father to see him in action. Clement Temile, coach of Kentish Town FC, from the Spartan South Midlands League (only ten divisions from the Premiership), hasn’t spoken to his son in 15 months and the two have been criticising each other in the Israeli media. Toto claimed that his father didn’t bother to stay in touch with him until he was famous, while his father accused Orit Tamuz of putting a spell on his estranged son. “Toto should be ashamed talking about his parents that way,” he said. “But I believe that God will bring him to me. He is much better then Yakubu Aiyegbeni and he will come to play in England.”

From WSC 242 April 2007. What was happening this month