ANTOINE GRIEZMANN (front) and his Atletico Madrid teammates seemed just as excited to be in the Holy Land this week as the Israeli public was to host them..
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
It’s not everyday that a world-class soccer club like Atletico Madrid comes to play a game in Israel, especially with a full squad including all of its top stars as well as some players who will be leaving for other teams.
this week in Jerusalem that’s exactly what happened; a friendly between Beitar Jerusalem and Los Colchoneros at Teddy Stadium in the capital of the Holy Land.
Usually when a team of this proportion comes to Israel it’s for one of the European competitions, whether it’s the UEFA Champions League or Europa League, but very rarely for an exhibition contest.
Israel has hosted the likes of English Premier League power Chelsea, Serie A side Juventus on a pair of occasions as well as German Champions Bayern Munich twice, all in the Champions League. But the last time a club of this magnitude came to Israel for a friendly was when Real Madrid played at Ramat Gan Stadium in 2007 for a peace match against an Israeli all-star team made up of Jews and Arabs.
Therefore, a visit like this should never, ever be taken for granted.
The likes of Antoine Griezmann, who just won the World Cup last summer with France, Diego Godín from Uruguay, Jan Oblak, the Slovenian ’keeper who just picked up the La Liga’s Golden Glove Award, and Spaniards Diego Costa and Saúl, to name a few, graced Israel with their presence both on and off the pitch.
Upon arrival in the Holy Land, Diego Simeone’s side was greeted by the head of Comtec, Daniel Benaim, who helped make the visit possible by arranging all of the logistics surrounding the endeavor.
The players were then whisked away to their hotel in Tel Aviv, where they were warmly welcomed by the club’s supporters, and from there they headed to dinner at the home of one of Atletico’s owners, Idan Ofer.
On the day of the game itself, the team split up into two groups with some players heading down south to meet Hapoel Beersheba while the other half went north to Haifa where they toured the offices of Plus500.
In the southern capital, Atletico stars Thomas Partey, Saúl, Koke, as well as Simeone, took part in a program with the Beersheba youth department due to the two clubs collaboration that began this season. This was an especially moving moment for Beersheba owner Alona Barkat, who spoke about the example that Atletico has set, specifically about the importance of developing home-grown players, with the message that other clubs should strive to do so as well.
In the Carmel, Griezmann, Oblak and others enjoyed meeting the staff and personnel of Israeli financial firm Plus500 while playing some foosball and enjoying a light meal.
Finally, after a leisurely afternoon, the Spanish giant traveled to Jerusalem for the main event, the friendly in front of 30,000 spectators.
Beitar was clicking on all cylinders as Maor Bozaglo scored a pair of goals and Griezmann countered for Atletico with a penalty strike of his own as the hosts recorded a shock 2-1 victory.
Did it really matter who won or lost on the pitch? Absolutely not. Everyone involved won.
The recently retired Yossi Benayoun was given the start and performed his magic on the pitch for the first 30 minutes. When he was substituted off, he received a standing ovation from the crowd as well as from Simeone and Godin.
The former Liverpool star was thrilled to have been able to lace up his boots one more time and said that a match like this gives Beitar and Israeli soccer fans the opportunity to show their wares on the grand stage. Benayoun also hinted that there will be yet another top-level match in August for his testimonial.
Comtec’s Benaim, who put together Atletico’s visit, noted how the images from the jaunt spoke for themselves. Not only was he happy that Israeli families were able to enjoy a unique sports experience in their home country, but he was also well aware that an exhibition of this sort paints Israel in a positive light around Europe.
Being involved with the Giro D’Italia, the Judo Championship, international basketball tournaments and more, Benaim clearly sees the power of sport and how it can influence public opinion about the country.
But most importantly it’s the guests who must enjoy a positive experience in Israel as they are the country’s best ambassadors when they go back to their home countries around the world. When Atletico head coach Simeone publicly thanked the organizers following the game for the opportunity to visit Israel and expressed how much he and the rest of the players and staff enjoyed the atmosphere in their quick but powerful trip, it spoke volumes.
However, the most impactful message about the trip came from the mouth of Atletico’s star striker Alvaro Morata.
“I can’t wait to come back again.”
Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel Sports Adventures for tourists and residents (www. sportsrabbi.com). Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi and feel free to contact the Sports Rabbi via email at email@example.com
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>