Time Out

As told to Melody Amsel-Arieli by Mike Cohen:

Ask anyone. The Brazil-Argentina 1982 World Soccer Cup match was unforgettable. After trouncing the Soviet Union, Scotland, and New Zealand, Brazil moved into the second round, challenging Argentina, the defending world champion.. Argentina, desperate for a win, was pinning all of its hopes on a rising new star, Diego Maradona. I will never forget the Brazil-Argentina match, either, but for different reasons. During the 1982 War in Lebanon, my paratrooper brigade was stationed on a beach a couple of kilometers south of the Beirut airport.

Most of us, having seen action in Damour, were already battle-weary. Besides sustaining our own casualties, we’d just heard that couple of new recruits had, against strict orders, fallen asleep, exhausted, beside their tank. When the 1-ton monster began to roll, two of them were crushed to death.

That was too much for us. We needed a break.

During those few moments when the enemy was out of sight and out of mind, anyone owning a transistor radio was king. Radios were our lifeline to home, our sanity. Our Israeli correspondents’ familiar voices reassured us, our songs cheered us up and, amazingly enough, even our homegrown commercials now sounded sweet.

The radio also brought us live coverage of the 1982 World Cup soccer games, which had begun barely a week after we’d been called up.

Although sometimes too tired to keep our eyes open, we hung on to the sports commentators’ every word, visualizing every kick, every goal, in our minds. Everyone, even the guys who, in civilian life, prefer Schubert to soccer, followed the World Cup. It was pure escapism.

But by the third week into the games, our boys were grumbling. They could stomach battle rations, they could bear field conditions. But hearing soccer games was just not the same thing as seeing them. And now Argentina, the defending world champion, was about to confront heavyweight Brazil in what promised to be the most exciting match of the season. We would have given anything to be back home, in front of our TVs. As darkness fell, a couple of my buddies showed up, brandishing a tiny TV set in the air. They had “found” it, they grinned triumphantly, in nearby Khaldeh, in an abandoned house connected with the Saudi Arabian embassy.

With expertise born of war, in 2 minutes flat, these guys had the set hooked up to the battery of one of our half-tracks, balanced on its tailgate, and tuned in to the game. Overjoyed, we jockeyed our sleeping bags into frontline positions, broke open celebratory jars of chocolate spread, unwrapped bars of halva, then settled back to enjoy the show.

Word got around fast. Within minutes, a couple of armored personal carriers showed up, bursting with Corps of Engineers regulars. Five or six tanks, overflowing with reservists, rumbled in. Jeeps pulled up out of nowhere, disgorging excited artillery units who had just made their way north, from the Israeli border. Green recruits hunkered down beside seasoned Golani warriors, all of us in battle fatigues and rifles at the ready. Pretty soon, hundreds of soldiers were stretched out on the sand, eyes glued to the bluish, flickering TV screen. Occasionally, subdued boos and cheers broke the silence.

Not for long. Intermittent cracks of Palestinian artillery began echoing through the mountains just above us. Since this often happened, we paid no attention. Then, just as Maradona was scoring a goal, a barrage of mortar shells zoomed in over our heads, landing out in the Mediterranean. Oblivious, everyone cheered for Argentina.

Suddenly, with great flashes of light, mortars rained down directly upon us. No one moved a muscle. But one tough son-of-a-gun Golani sergeant, without taking his eyes off the screen, yelled out, “I don’t give a shit what happens. I don’t care if we get kidnapped. I’m watching the game!”

Hundreds of soldiers nodded in agreement, their faces shining with joy. Game over. Everything returned to normal. The hijacked TV set made its way home to Khaldeh safely, accompanied, naturally, by a note of thanks. Soldiers returned to their bases. And we curled up in our sleeping bags for the night, tired but happy. The next morning, we found hundreds of pieces of shrapnel along the beach and around the halfbacks. Meant for us.

For all the hoopla, to this day, I can’t tell you who won the game – Argentina or Brazil? But I’ll never forget that for one night, soccer was more important than life itself.

Melody Amsel-Arieli, a freelance journalist based in Ma’aleh Adumim, has found that nearly every Israeli has a tale to tell.This story blog is proudly powered by WordPress. Copyright © 2006 CommonTies.com. All Rights Reserved.