Monday, January 22, 2018

Maccabi Ahi Nazareth – Hapoel Be’er-Sheva (07-01-2018)

I’m for work in Israel (again), but this time I have rented a car, which means I have many more groundhopping options. I decide to make the easy 35 min drive from Haifa to the tiny town of Ilut, a suburb of Nazareth, where Maccabi Ahi Nazareth plays its home games in Ilut Stadium.

Remarkably, the stadium exit is indicated with a sign and I am able to park close to the stadium, as I am one hour early. Still, many home and away fans are here already. I get a schnitzel sandwich, and walk to the old, depleted concrete stadium. I find the dim-lit ticket office and but a ticket for NIS 50 (ca. $15) from a highly surprised, and not overly friendly, man. There is no heavy security so it is quite easy to enter the stadium.

The Ilut Stadium has only one side with a stand. Seems like other long side used to have stand, but it is now just rubble. It has a capacity of just under 5,000 and I assume there are at least 4,000 people at this game on a Saturday evening (just after Shabbat). Then again, it is a game for the State Cup, against Hapoel Be’er-Sheva, champions of the Israeli Premier League. Several hundreds of fans had made the almost 200 km (130 miles) trip from Be’er Sheva – one of the biggest distances in professional Israeli football.

While I knew that Nazareth is a predominantly Arab town, I somehow expected the fans to be Jewish, as the club is called Maccabi and has a Star of David in its logo. Turns out, the club is run by Arab-Israeli, has almost only Arab-Israeli players (except for a few foreigners and a Jewish-Israeli goalie), and has mainly Arab-Israeli fans. The people in the stadium are all men, mostly young, and wearing black. I see no women, despite walking through the whole stadium – except for the away fans block – I come across just one very young girl (circa 10 years old).

The day before the game there has been a major storm in Israel, which means that the seats are wet and the pitch is in a particularly bad shape. The pace of the game is reasonably slow, the technique is ok, but the passing a bit soft. The home fans are singing for much of the game and some chants sounds amazing because of the crazy echo in the stadium.

It takes about 10 minutes for the first really good attack by Nazareth, but the pass is too sharp. A few minutes later Be’er Sheva has its first shot at goal, from 20 meters, but it goes well wide. The visitors are the better team, as one would expect, but they are passive. Nazareth attacks, but lacks skill. Still, you don’t really feel they are from a lower league. There is always just a small space where all players are. Neither team changes the play from one side to the other.

In the 22th minute Hapoel scores a pinball goal, but it is offside. Two minutes later the Maccabi goalie makes a good save. In the 28th minute the hosts finally have a good attack again, but the final ball is not coming. Then, in the 33th minutes, out of nowhere Nazareth has an attack over left, the ball in is stopped by the goalkeeper, lays still at 1 meter from the goal line, and is kicked in: 1-0! Four minutes later Be’er Sheva has a corner, the ball is headed back in, and a bicycle kick is stopped by the goalie, the rebound goes wide. 1-0 is the half time score.

The second half starts slow. The visitors have most of the ball. In the 63rd minute the hosts have a corner, which is brought back in, but the header goes just wide. In the 71st minute Be’er Sheva equalized, but I couldn’t fully see how: 1-1. Four minutes later they get a corner, the soft header is saved by the goalie (would have gone wide). The next corner’s rebound is volleyed hard, but straight at the goalkeeper. In the 84th minute an attack by the visitors ends with a shot from 16 meter that goes just over.

As I am fighting jet lag, and don’t want to get stuck in traffic on way back, I leave early. Just after I have left the stadium, Hapoel Be’er Sheva scores the inevitable second: 1-2 is also the final score. Maccabi Ahi Nazareth is out of the Israeli State Cup.

Overall, this was a great experience. Maccabi Ahi Nazareth has a great support that makes its depleted stadium feel cozy and exciting. But out of the way, but definitely worth a visit!

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