Israeli Gene Testers Help Soccer Legends Learn About Their Ethnic Backgrounds

June 14, 2018

3 min read

Even a soccer player who represented his country on the field for a number of years and on the world’s biggest stage, may be mistaken about his ethnic origins. In honor of the FIFA World Cup about to open in Russia, an Israeli gene-testing company produced some big surprises for eight legendary European and South American players.

My Heritage, founded by Gilad Japhet in his living room 15 years ago and today based in the Israeli city of Or Yehuda (close to Ramat Gan), is an  online genealogy platform that makes it possible for users to create family trees, upload and browse through photos, search billions of global historical records and discover their ethnic origin. The company, which has additional offices in Tel Aviv, California, Utah and the Ukraine, has collected 35 million family trees on its website. Over a million customers have undergone testing so far.

Customers can order a MyHeritage DNA kit containing a cotton swab used to take a sample of epithelial tissue from the inside of the cheek. The end of the swab is swished around in liquid in a tube that is mailed to the company for analysis to discover ethnicity (on a percentage basis) and identify relatives and ancestors by comparing the results with the database. The results are sent by email within about four weeks.

The $69 DNA test examines the first 44 (non-sex-linked) autosomal chromosomes, analyzing the genetic material inherited from your mother and father, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on – to provide you with a breakdown of your ethnic percentages and connect you with relatives descended from any of your ancestral lines within the last six generations.

The results enable customers to find out more about themselves, their ethnic group and geographical region of origin – to find long-lost relatives, complete family trees and to settle paternity issues. While the results can be fairly broad and tend to be more accurate for multiethnic users, the company offers cutting edge DNA testing, as well as market-leading family tree services.

The former soccer stars who were tested were; Lothar Matthaus, who played on for Germany on its national team from 1980 to 2000 and captained them to World Cup triumph in 1990; Clarence Seedorf of the Netherlands, from 1994 to 2008; Robert Pires of France, 1996 to 2004; John Barnes of England from 1983 to 1995; Hernan Crespo of Argentina, from 1995 to 2007; Gilberto Silva of Brazil, 2001 to 2010; Luis Garcia of Spain, from 2005 to 2008; and Gianluca Zambrotta of Italy, from 1999 to 2010. The company brought all eight together after they were tested to exchange information about their ethnicity, check whether they had joint origins and to reminisce about their experiences on the field and old fierce rivalries.

The players had thought they were quite sure of their origins, but upon receiving the results, they were surprised at the source of the genetic load they were carrying. They were also able to study their family histories, complete with historical records and pictures of some of their forebears.

Aviram Levi, the company’s chief marketing officer for the last three years, said that the soccer legends – aged between 40 and 50 – learned that they have more ethnic variety than they had thought.

“Getting the eight stars together was a joint idea in the company. They met in London three months ago. It wasn’t easy to get them together. Most of them will be at the World Cup games,” said Levi.

The biggest surprise was that Garcia of Spain found that 11.3% of his DNA on his mother’s side belongs to Sephardic Jews. This means that theoretically, according to Jewish law, he could be Jewish. If we knew this in advance,” joked Levi, “we could have converted him and put him on the Israel national soccer team,” which then might have participated in the World Cup competition.

Matthaus, who lives in Germany, was surprised to learn that he is 24.3% English. Pires, of France, learned that he was 38% Italian. Barnes, a British citizen but born in Jamaica, found that 16% of his genes were of Scottish, Irish and Welsh origin. No genetic connection was found among the eight soccer legends, Levy said.

The company tests people around the world, except – ironically – those who live in Israel and Poland (which is the ethnic origin of many Israelis). Levi explained that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is not too keen about testing of genetic origins because it can cause problems related to illicit relationships. “It isn’t illegal to test in Israel, but we don’t want to take risks,” said Levi, who did undergo testing himself and was not surprised to hear that he is mostly Yemenite and Moroccan in origin, with a bit of Italy mixed in. But Jews who live outside Israel like to know where they come from, as do many non-Jews in Europe and the US.

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