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Football in Israel

Stories, clubs, politics and other pills from to the football movement of the Middle Eastern country

Football in Israel Stories, clubs, politics and other pills from to the football movement of the Middle Eastern country

2018 was a golden year for Israel from the point of view of tourism: according to the Minister Yaariv Levin, that year its nation reached a historical visitor record of 4.2 million in a year. A national record that has made the Middle Eastern state very proud, a politically convulsive country with very marked media contradictions. In fact, it's no coincidence that Israel is a two-faced nation, a bit like the cities that represent it: on the one hand the modern and evolved Tel Aviv, deeply vertical and enjoyable, on the other Jerusalem, both sacred and welcoming. And ever since the twentieth-century birth, Israel has always divided and united in the context of a general world-wide consideration - which in fact touches the economic, political and above all religious sectors.

This is one of the reasons why Zionist football has become more national than international over the years, much more anchored to internal rivalries than open to transnational improvement. In the league Ligat ha'Al, the first professional league born in 1999, there are 14 teams, of which three are from Tel Aviv and one from Jerusalem, and the most titled is Maccabi Tel Aviv, 84th in the UEFA ranking and winner of 22 Israeli titles. The great rivalry of the Tel Aviv clubs - and it' here that the topical core of football in Israel is concentrated - is with the Beitar Jerusalem, an antagonist club both on and off the field: politically Beitar is notoriously the team of the radical right party, much that in 2015, as witnessed by a bewitching documentary by the The Guardian, Muslim players were not allowed to play. For example, instead, Hapoel is much more inclusive and of from left party, a team from the international sphere, which is characterized by an always assiduous market campaign focused on foreign players and back from an important performances in the European cups. The 2000-2001 season,for example, an exceptional year when the Israelis managed to beat Chelsea and AC Milan, who was defeated 1-0 in Tel Aviv but then won in 2-0 in Milan.

The focus on Israeli clubs over the years has grown together with the escalation of the country, increasingly lively, tourist, and progressive, where the Westernization, since the 1960s increasingly established, has created a modern bubble in a Middle East increasingly mistreated. Obviously the country cannot fail to be identified also due to the massive tensions with the Arab countries - the Gaza strip is "just" 100 km from Tel Aviv and the current restlessness with some neighboring States has not contributed to weaken the political problem- religious - but football, although in a contained dimension, is still an important factor in the social dynamics of a nation as welcoming as it is controversial. And above all, it's the most popular sport, along with basketball.


The home league

Football in Israel has arrived thanks to the British, who during the Palestinian Mandate have brought - like many other places in the world, including Italy - the game of football. Israel was immediately attracted by the new sport, and over the years the culture of football has become inclusive, mass, conjunctive. At the turn of the 50s and 60s many football clubs were born, strictly divided between Hebrew and Arabic, so much so that, until recently, this partition was even more pronounced.

Israeli teams play a regular season until March, but then split into two groups - in Scottish Premier League style - in which real playoffs are scheduled. The Israeli champion club gains access to the Champions League preliminary round while the second and third place teams start from the Europa League preliminaries. The last two of the play-outs relegates. Israel is currently ranked 23rd in the UEFA clubs' ranking, a positioning that over the years has improved a lot. Because football is becoming more and more popular and contributing to this phenomenon was not just the home championship level - where the number of foreigners has increased, still around 80 players - but also the Israeli footballers themselves, who are gaining more and more space in the European leagues. In this sense the leading player is the Sevilla striker - recently at Red Bull Salzburg - Munas Dabbur, who this summer the Andalusians have paid as much as 17 million euros. To the most celebrated over 30s player like Bibras Natkho, Tomer Hemed and Beram Kayal we add the former Palermo midfielder Eran Zahavi, now playing in Guangzhou, China, along with some talented youngsters: one of the new gems of Zionist football is definitely Shon Weissmann, a 23-year-old Wolfsberger striker that have just scored against Monchengladbach in the Europa League first match, another is Shakhtar winger, Manor Solomon.

A curious fact: three of the current members of the Israeli National team (coached by the Austrian Andreas Herzog) play or have played in the Scottish championship, more than 5600 km away.


A long list of derbies

The Ligat ha’Al is a galaxy of matches played and territorial clashes. Being a country that is not very extensive (Israel is the 154th state in terms of geographical extension on the world's 263), the cities are very close together and the fan base is mostly limited to the big urban centers: Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Beer Sheva, Haifa. If the most felt rivalry is between Beitar and Hapoel, in Tel Aviv itself two very opposite realities clash, that of Maccabi and Hapoel. Like the rivals, Maccabi is also a very well-known club in Europe, and above all, it's a club that over the years has brought to Israel several professionals who have become famous in the Old Continent (Peter Bosz, Paulo Sousa, before Avram Grant). 

It's a deeply rich club with financial resources over the average, so much so that in the last tournament they ended the championship with 30 points behind the second one. In this sense Maccabi - as well as a very important European tradition - can be considered similar to PSG or Bayern Munich, able to buy the best players of the the home tournament every season.

Maccabi is one of the three teams that have played the Champions League at least once, and in its stadium, the Bloomfield, also play Bnei Yuda and Hapoel. The great classic of Israeli football can be considered Hapoel-Maccabi, the Grand Derby of Tel Aviv. Maccabi is a profoundly Jewish reality, further represented by the Star of David on its crest. Moreover, also speaking about derbies, the other big matches are those that involve the high ranking clubs, that is the games with Beitar, Bnei (with which Hapoel and Maccabi play the "Little Derby"), Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Be'er Sheva, who are precisely the great ones of Israel.

The last one is a team with a not-so-winning past but a fascinating present. In Europe they became famous for their double victory with Inter in the 2016 Europa League, but the club is actually also known to be one of the most avant-garde and modern reality in Israeli football. One of the examples is this nice video that Hapoel created for the presentation of the new shirts; a model, that of using social media for advertising, in use by practically all the big sports clubs:

Another fundamental reality is Maccabi Haifa, club of the seaside city and winner of 12 national titles and several European appearances: notable, for what concerns the Maccabi, is the stadium, the Sammy Ofer.


Beitar Jerusalem, a separate story

Who deserves an exclusive explanation is Beitar Jerusalem, whose radical fundamentalism hurts badly with the multicultural present of Israel, both in football and in society. The need to open up to a new market of players has led the company to take a step beyond history: including Islamic players. Like the Guardian, Netflix also investigated this situation with a documentary - Forever Pure - in which, with various interviews with those directly involved, the situation is well explained the relationship between club and supporters. The fans considered it as an affront, a real treason; the leadership instead as a step towards modernity and change. Two opposite reasons that have clashed between protests, threats and eloquent banners at the stadium.

Beitar was born in 1936, a particular and fundamental year in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Over the years the team has always expressed itself as the one with the most expressive and warm support - the group of organized fans La Familia is one of the most famous in the world - and the harmony between players and people off the pitch is due above all to the atmosphere of the Teddy Kollen stadium, which is also the biggest in all of Israel. Despite the previous episodes of racism, Beitar today is an inclusive reality, in which it certainly remains a part of a fancier and more conservative fan but that in general, at Kollen, support the team regardless of religious issues. The Beitar president himself, Moshe Hogeg, personally fights racism in his club with strict precautionary measures. Throughout the league, political and religious tensions are much less established than a few years ago, and today, without distinction, Jews, Arabs, Christians and Buddhists play in every team; in the same National of Israel play a good part of Arab footballers. The important thing is to play well.

Beitar is also very supportive in politics, with several politicians who have publicly supported the team's triumphs and are often in the stands at the stadium. On the other hand, as anything in Israel cannot fail to have a political and religious background, so the football cannot be just a sport. In May 2018 the club decided to change its name to Beitar 'Trump' Jerusalem, a clear homage to the US president who had moved the American Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing it as the capital of Israel.


The National Team (and a little bit of history)

Year by year, also the Israeli National football team made progress. In addition to an obvious improvement in the technical level of the team - coached by the Austrian Andreas Herzog - there are also some progresses to be made in the results achieved. Israel was placed in the C bracket of the Nations League and finished qualifying in second place behind Scotland. Recently, in the next European Championship qualifiers, Herzog's team was included in Group G and made two wins, two draws and two defeats that still keep virtually running for the Euro 2020 spot. In terms of play the team demonstrated a courageous football and in general a certain appeal but, in fact, something that does not work.

Israel is enjoying considerable international visibility: the National team has in fact won only one trophy (Asia Cup in 1968) and has only one participation in the World Cup (1970, out after the first round). The highlight was reached in 2008 with the fifteenth place in the FIFA ranking, while it is currently at eighty-sixth place. Although Israel is a member of the political geography of Asia, the IFA is part of UEFA's federation hub. The reason? Israel has never been on good terms with Asian countries and after the establishment of the State and the National team, many Asian federations have refused over the years to play against Zionist selection - Israel even risked qualifying for a World Cup for this reason in 1954. Thus, for a few decades, Israel wandered through the qualifying rounds of Oceania and Europe, until being hired as a UEFA national member in 1991. 

So there were many years of difficulty for the Zionists, who started playing as Israel's National team only in 1948, the year of the birth of the country of Israel and the date of the beginning of the Arab-Israeli war. Before, in fact, the current Israel was playing with the name of "British Mandate of Palestine", a situation linked to the complex phase of the creation of the Zionist state. And obviously there was no professional league: the tournament was a competition in which workers, firemen and policemen played. This is why, in a context of political crisis and violent Arab opposition, football in Israel has evolved following the country's historical events. The first ever game played by the State of Israel was held in New York on 26th of September, 1948, against the US Olympic selection. 

One more reason to follow Israel is linked to the local football hero: Yossi Benayoun, the player with the most appearances in the major team. A former midfielder of Chelsea, Liverpool and West Ham, Benayoun, at home, played with four different teams within six seasons. Despite having finished his career with Beitar, Benayoun became a director of Maccabi Haifa, a club with which he grew up footballing and which he claimed, by having him sign a contract, that at the end of his career he would have had to return to society as director. So it was.