With the World Cup almost over, it’s time to move the focus onto the UEFA competitions, the Champions League and the Europa League, as Israeli domestic teams began their 2018/19 seasons this past week.
Israel Premier League Champion Hapoel Beersheba played the first leg of their first-round Champions League qualification tie in Estonia against Flora Tallinn, while Maccabi Tel Aviv visited Budapest Hungary for a date with Ferencvaros and Beitar Jerusalem traveled to Georgia to play Chikhura in Tbilisi in Europa League first-round qualifying.
A fourth team, Hapoel Haifa will join the European adventure in Europa League second-round qualifying in a couple of weeks.
In order to play in Europe, Israeli teams need to finish the prior season between first and fourth place in league play or win the State Cup. Only one representative has the chance to compete in the Champions League and that privilege belongs to the first-place team, which in Israel’s case this season is Beersheba.
The other three teams are allocated spots in the Europa League qualifying rounds with the ultimate goal of reaching the group stages of the respective competitions.
Sounds simple, but in reality it’s not.
In order to make it to the grand stage, the Israeli clubs will need to maneuver through three rounds plus a playoff round to reach the coveted prize of potentially matching up against the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United and Arsenal.
Although the goal of every team is to advance as far as possible, the European competitions allow for fans, both veterans and newcomers alike, to take in some quality soccer during the summer months. The fans can not only cheer on their club against the Hungarian, Georgian and Estonian sides but also represent Israel at home and across the continent.
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As the Israeli teams move deeper in the qualification stage, the opponents and locations also become a bit more attractive.
Back in 2015, Maccabi Tel Aviv began its European foray in Malta and then moved onto the Czech Republic and finally to Basel, before eventually appearing in the Champions League group stage for the second time in franchise history.
Once in the group stage, games against Chelsea, Porto and Dynamo Kiev were on the menu for the yellow-and-blue, which included a date at Stamford Bridge in London.
Over 4,000 Maccabi fans came to England to throw their full support behind the team that they love.
Now that’s not only quite amazing, but also quite an accomplishment.
When Chelsea fans said that they had never, ever witnessed such positive support by an opposing team in London, that sent a clear message about not only Maccabi fans but Israeli supporters as a whole.
Take a look at Beersheba. In its recent past, Hapoel played qualification matches against one of the all-time greatest clubs in European soccer, Celtic, Italian giant Inter Milan along with Southampton from the English Premier League. Each game gave the Israeli side a chance to show the best of what it could do, not only on the pitch, but off of it as well.
Whether it’s a game against Sparta Prague, a matchup versus Frankfurt or a tilt with Villarreal, fans can make a positive impact for their team and for their country.
By filling the stadiums this coming week in Beersheba, Jerusalem or Netan, fans will not only show support for the team, but also the nation as a whole. Cheering one’s side onto the next round and helping push the team onwards and upwards is the key to success and the epitome of professional sports in general.
Those having the opportunity to travel to root for their team can make a difference for the club and for the country while perhaps also witnessing some history in the making.
Taking a look back at Maccabi Tel Aviv’s first leg in the 2015 Champions League playoff round, it is clear that the experience produced one of the country’s finest soccer moments.
Star striker Eran Zahavi headed home a 96th-minute goal to draw 2-2 against Basel in Switzerland, an away-goal that would eventually help the club move into the group stage after a 1-1 scoreline at home.
There were roughly 100 Maccabi fans in the Swiss stadium that night, but the vision that will always be remembered was that of an Israeli flag hanging in front of the yellow-and-blue supporters. They knew it was much more than just a Maccabi game, they understood that it was for the team and for the country.
So as the Israeli teams begin their way in continental play, I would implore you to head out to one of the stadiums next week.
Whether it’s Beersheba on Tuesday, or on Thursday in Jerusalem to see Beitar or Maccabi Tel Aviv in Netanya it’s your chance to see top-level soccer, while supporting not only your team but Israel as well.Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel Sports Adventures for tourists and residents. Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or visit www.sportsrabbi.com. Contact the Sports Rabbi via email at email@example.com
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