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Artificial turf and soccer balls emblazoned with the HOT 3 logo covered the floor last week at the cable channel's premiere of its latest prime time soap opera, Ha'alufa (The Champion), which will air on television tonight for the first time at 8:05 p.m.
Stars including Yehuda Levi and Ofer Schechter appeared at Ramat Hasharon's Cinema City for the premiere of the new show, strolling down the grassy green carpet before taking their place alongside family, friends and members of the press to watch the series opener, which will be followed by a new nightly installment of the show Sundays through Thursdays. HOT 3 representatives, dressed in tracksuits featuring the channel's logo, distributed bags of sunflower seeds to audience members before the lights went down and credits for the new series appeared onscreen. After weeks of relentless on-air promotion, it was time for viewers to see what Ha'alufa is all about.
Soccer, it turns out, provides merely a backdrop for much of the series' true drama, which focuses on two separate love triangles involving Ha'alufa's male leads. The series opens in the mystical year 1995, with aspiring soccer star Saar Vadida (Levi) saving the soft-spoken Maytal (Liraz Charki) from harassment at the Jerusalem cafe' where she works.
Clad in period costumes - washed-out jean jackets, faded t-shirts, ugly haircuts - the two form an immediate connection, flirting under the bright lights of a local soccer field and consoling each after personal disappointments. A flicker of disappointment enters Maytal's eyes after her boyfriend's happy announcement that he's being recruited by a Dutch soccer team, but his promise of a speedy return to Israel appears to allay her fears about their relationship.
Time marches on, of course, and in the blink of an eye it's the present day, with Saar now the charismatic star of fictional soccer team Hakoach Yerushalayim. Well-mannered and much better dressed than he was in the previous decade, he's also taken a managerial role with the team, dating and impregnating the owner's daughter (Adi Himmelblau) for good measure. Gone from the scene - at least temporarily - is the dark-haired Maytal, a fact that allows Saar to recycle one of the more sensitive lines he used to woo her during their ill-fated youthful romance. Is he a cad? He doesn't appear to be, but something about him comes across a little too perfect, perhaps.
Just as much of a golden boy is Tom (Schechter), who's dubbed "The Holy City's Most Eligible Bachelor" by a Jerusalem magazine and who's hotly pursued by Mili (Liron Weissman), a self-absorbed blonde whose mother, Tova (Merav Gruber), is as manipulative and social-climbing as they come. Along with Mili's ditzy younger sister, the two women heap endless abuse on Sigi (Michal Gavrielov), who cleans up and makes coffee at Tova's beauty salon. Struggling to support herself and put a younger sibling through school, Sigi effectively has an evil stepmother and two stepsisters in Tova and her daughters; the character needs only a missing glass slipper to fill out her role as Ha'alufa's Hebrew-speaking Cinderella.
In fitting Prince Charming style, Tom finds himself wooed by Mili but attracted to the socially inferior Sigi, who accidentally spills a cup of coffee on him during the series' second episode. The subplot may be a rip-off of a fairy tale, but Schechter's got a knack for physical comedy that's well matched by Gavrielov's wide-eyed virtuousness. His character is only trying to be nice when he tips Sigi for cleaning up the coffee spill, but having done so in front of Tova and Mili, the intended act of generosity only puts the clean-up girl back in her place. Part of the series' most obvious storyline, the scene is momentarily arresting, authentically capturing the tensions that underlie so many of the interactions between members of the working class and even their well-meaning social superiors.
Tom and Saar's soccer team, meanwhile, is barely hobbling along financially. In a subplot clearly inspired by real-life sports controversies, Hakoach is facing a hostile takeover by a Russian billionaire, a proposition that ignites the wrath of Jerusalem's violence-prone soccer hooligans. Here, however, the Russian tycoon has no particular interest in Jerusalem or its soccer team - it's his dark-haired girlfriend who insists he buy this specific squad rather than another from Haifa.
She, of course, is Maytal, who in the last 11 years has ditched her perm, found a killer red lipstick and developed a rather fetching way to display her lace bra through a low-cut black dress. Charki is a vindictive vision as Saar's vengeful ex; at this stage in the game, there's no contest between her and her former boyfriend's whiny current lover. Some kind of confrontation is about to get underway by the end of the second episode, when the Russian businessman completes his acquisition of the team and Maytal makes her first appearance in Hakoach's suddenly silent locker room. Only she knows what she has in store for the soccer team.
Maytal's climactic reemergence isn't quite a moment from classic Greek drama, but the intensity in her eyes nevertheless suggest a character exploring her inner Medea. Why she's so angry we still don't know, but the unreadable look that passes across Saar's normally placid face suggests that something of interest must lie in wait. Hell, one hopes, hath no fury like a woman with a soccer team.