Wednesday, 14 September 2011

An Israeli derby. All of the passion. All the bluster.

This is an Israeli Jew taunting Betar's racist fans.
On my travels, I've a fortunate habit of 'happening' upon big football matches I'd not budgeted on going to. Like a Soccer Presence guiding me from above I get to experience games across the world I wasn't expecting to.

Once upon a time on a trip to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim, I passed the famous San Mames stadium, the home of Athletic. By coincidence, it was the weekend of Real Madrid's visit: Galacticos and all. Naturally if Zizou and Co were in town, I was going to be there too.

12,000 fans but it felt like treble that number.
I watched in an atmospheric old ground as Real with goals from Robinho and Ronaldo collected the points in a two-nil win. Sadly, David Beckham was injured that night although I have the distinction of having seen Jonathan Woodgate play a full ninety in a Madrid shirt!

So it was meant to be that I should see one of Israel's top games too.

I found myself at a loose end one night. Someone told me about a flea market in Jaffa with all the atmosphere a westerner would want to lap up.
If you blag your way in, you've just got to!
But it wasn't enough. As I arrived at the ramshackle sheds and alleyways something much more authentic caught my football eye, a familiar sight. Those distant but intense floodlights shining in a hazy eventide with all the lure of a midweek cup game back home (without the damp winter chill). I zoomed there on my bike as an insect to a lamp.

Amid the security ring of police and the army, I found out Happoel Tel Aviv's opponents were no ordinary opposition. It was a game-and-a-half against probably Israel's most controversial clubs, Betar Jerusalem.

There were already 35 minutes gone and of course I had no ticket. It was explained to me by the first copper that fans had bought tickets for this one upto five months ago. There was "no chance" I'd get in.

"Yeah, yeah", I heard myself saying to which the cop replied they weren't like my bobbies back home! Still, they let me through the barrier toward the turnstiles and it was just between me and the stewards now.

After five refusals, I found myself behind the goal in the home end. BINGO! In with no ticket for the first time since Euro 2004, England against France in Lisbon. For the record I did have a ticket then, but I never showed it and was ushered in by a panicking Portuguese.

It's not often you get a security guard taking a short break from his duties to silently recite the evening prayer against a stadium stanchion as though at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. But there he was: palm trees beneath the floodlights. One of the many faithful there.
Steward praying the Jewish evening prayer.

Football, yes... but not as we know it, Jim.

Famed for their salty racist chants Betar, dressed in yellow and black like an annoying wasp swarm over the other side of the ground, bellowed at the Happoel homers who are very much the cultural opposite. Founded by the workers for the workers with fans from all walks of life: eastern and western Jew and Arab alike wearing red. United.

And it was a proper derby dustup on a pitch which frankly fitted the fayre.

The first half I was told, was a dog! I missed nothing. Even the midnight TV highlights only showed action from after the break.

The ground gave the impression of being bigger than it is, but 12,000 committed regulars didn't half make a noise. Not very deep or high, but the fans draw their supporting culture from the Spanish and English games.

And so it was that Happoel settled it with a single late goal to take all three points and set themselves up for a match against Steaua Bucharest in the Europa League.
A collage of great Bloomfield Stadium moments

At the end, Happoel's home fans cleared the stands quickly and all went home, no swift half in the bars or anything like that. The area was deserted. No traffic problems either: surprising. A few stayed on to watch the TV interviews by the goals, but the Betar fans, kept in the ground for security reasons, chanted and chanted that belligerent noise you get in away ends in League 1, Austria's League and Tottenham's away end.

I had one quick nose around the dressing room and coach area, and when I got onto the pitch to take a picture by the corner flag, all parties agreed: it was time for me to go home.

'Garinim' shells, reminiscent of Bilbao. Fans and stadium too.
Bloomfield Stadium is an authentic football home and I hope that the European game strengthens Israel's domestic league because the fans truly deserve it.

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