Monday, January 22, 2018

Hapoel Mevasseret Zion – Hapoel Lod (09-01-2017)

It is a Monday afternoon and I am taking a bus from the ICC station in Jerusalem to Ha’rel Interchange, at the suburb of Mevasseret Zion, where I follow some kids on a shortcut, which, by sheer chance, brings me to the pitch, in the middle of nowhere. The two teams are already warming up. It is gorgeous weather and I can even sit in a polo shirt in the sun.

The game is in the Liga Gemel (Fifth Division) Central Division, so more at the level of friends’ teams. There are some 20 spectators, seemingly all friends of players, including 3 away supporters (in one car). The game is played on a small pitch surrounded by a fence; it feels like a cage. The grass is of poor quality, in part because it stormed a few days earlier. The pitch is close to a construction side, so trucks and bulldozers drive on and off.

The players are not that young, more late 20s and early 30s, and several are a bit overweight and don’t look very athletic. Consequently, the pace is quite low and passing not very precise – although they often have enough space to compensate for their less-then-perfect technique.

In the 4th minute Mevasseret Zion has the first shot, but it goes about 10 meters wide. Three minutes later Lod has a good chance but the goalkeeper saves and the rebound is shot straight at him, so he saves it again. In the 20th minute the visitors have a corner and the rebound is shot from top of the box but forces a great save by the goalie. In the 25th minute Lod gets a penalty after a foul in the box. The player puts it cool in the right corner: 1-0.

In the 30th minute the hosts have a rare counter and the striker goes alone at the goal and places it from 10 meter in the far corner: 1-1.  Four minutes later a (too) long dribble by a Lod midfielder, around 4 people, leads to a light foul in the box, but no penalty. A few minutes later the visitors shoot from 20 meters at the crossbar. The next minute a Lod shot, from 12 meters, is deflected just in front of goal, hits the post, and ricochets in the hands of the goalie.

In the 42nd minute the hosts again counter attack. It seemed offside to me, but the striker is allowed on, comes alone in front of the goalkeeper, who grabs the ball from his feet as he tries to get around him. In the last minute of the first half  a corner by Lod is cleared by the same home defender by miskicking the ball three times in a row. Half-time score: 1-1.

The first ten minutes of the second half see a series of fouls, which are not punished, until he finally whistles after a particularly nasty one by the hosts and draws his first yellow card. Little happens in the next minutes, except for a shots by Lod that goes wide, until in the 64th minute Lod has a good cross and a Mevasseret Zion defender slides it high in his own goal: 1-2.

The rest of the game remains fairly slow, with some chances and half chances at both sides, but not change in the score. While I leave about 10 minutes before the end, to catch my bus back to Jerusalem (for which I will have to wait 20 minutes anyway), I think it remained 1-2 for Lod.

Clearly, Israeli Fifth Division is not where it’s at – it’s the level where I played at 25-30. But, the weather was nice and I didn’t have anything else to do, so I actually had a pretty good time.

Hapoel Tel Aviv FC – Maccabi Haifa FC (07-01-2018)

I leave Haifa well in time and, despite some detours because of a weird GPS, arrive to the stadium a good fifteen minutes before kick-off. And then… I get stuck in terribly managed traffic. When I finally pass the stadium, roughly at the time of kick-off (20:30), I only have to park my car… which takes me another 10 minutes and leads to a highly illegal move (of which I’m quite proud). I get to the stadium fifteen minutes late, and there are still hundreds of people waiting to get in. Security makes it go slow, but then another entrance opens, and I get in without any security check (!). This is not just remarkable because it is Israel, but also because it is a game between two rival teams and towns.

The HaMoShava Stadium, also known as Petah Tikva Stadium, named after the Tel Aviv suburb it is located in, is home to several teams, including Hapoel Tel Aviv, Hapoel Petah Tikva and Maccabi Petah Tikva – most team in Israel are called either Hapoel or Maccabi, going back to pre-Israeli times; Hapoel is linked to the workers’ movement (Histadrut). HaMoShava Stadium was opened in 2011 and is modern and relatively small (capacity 11,500) with only stands on the two long sides. A friend had bought tickets in advance, for 60 NIS ($17.50), as I was told it could be sold out, but there were probably not more than 8,000 people there, including a big presence from Haifa – Maccabi is having a poor season, so this State Cup game is a welcome distraction and only chance at success.

As I sit down, I see that Haifa are 0-1 up. Their fans are singing and taunting, but are well matched by the home fans. The acoustics of the stadium are impressive, which gives it a much bigger feeling. Most fans are wearing red, and some kind of official Hapoel Tel Aviv gear. The audience is pretty mixed, in terms of Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews as well as religious (Orthodox) and secular – there are not many women (ca. 15%) and only a few Arab Israelis.

The first action I see is a good attack by Hapoel, with a player going around the Maccabi goalie, but rather than passing it to a free teammate, he shoots, and his shot is blocked. In the 20th minute the hosts again have a good chance, but the ball bounces wrong. There are a lot of fouls, which take pace out of the game, and joy out of watching it. Fortunately, the atmosphere remains good.

In the 23rd minute Hapoel has a corner, which leads to a lame volley. Three minutes later, again when I am in the restroom (just like at the Nazareth game), Hapoel scores the equalizer. Because of the many fouls, and poor passing, not too much happens until the last five minutes, in which Hapoel has two decent chances, but nothing comes out of them. Half time score: 1-1.

As soon as the second half starts, two Hapoel players butt heads, and the game is stopped for at least five minutes, as one player has to leave the game. When the game resumes, the football is even more terrible than before. Full of fouls and poor passing.

There are only a handful of could-have-been chances, which tend to end in horrible final passes – final in the sense that they lead to the other team taking over. In the 72nd minute Hapoel has an attack, ball is pulled back, defender misses, but the shot from 16 meter is deflected and goes over the goal. Not much later I leave the game, as I still have to drive to Jerusalem, and don’t want to get stuck in the post-game traffic. I later see that the final score remained 1-1 and Maccabi Haifa won 3-5 after penalties.

Despite the terrible football, I liked the atmosphere. Sure, it is a modern stadium, with little character, but the Hapoel Tel Aviv crowd is diverse and enthusiastic and their constant singing is amplified by the excellent acoustics. Definitely worth a visit for any groundhopper.

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!