The most common question I have been asked during the past two months, as a British immigrant to Israel and as a known football supporter, is “where is Leicester?” The football team from this small town in the East Midlands has taken the world by storm as they lead the Premier League into the final weeks of the season and, unless they completely blow it, are likely to be crowned Premier League Champions just a few weeks from now.
In a world where sport in general, and football (soccer to the North Americans who may be reading this) in particular, has become a big money concern, with hundreds of millions being invested for media and TV rights, Leicester have shown that it doesn’t always take big money to win the honors.
The whole of the Leicester team cost the equivalent of one player at one of the largest teams, but they have displayed a teamwork which has been the envy of all others as they cling to their top place. The only serious challenger at this late stage in the season is Tottenham Hotspur, who in recent decades have never quite managed to match past glories. Much to the disappointment of this writer, Tottenham will probably just miss out on top place, but they too have been a turn-up for the books and if they manage to keep hold of their top players and their successful manager, there is a bright future down the road for the Tottenham Yids of North London.
Israelis are hooked on European soccer, especially the English Premier League and the European Champions League. It has become common practice for Israeli boys to be taken on bar mitzva trips to Barcelona, Madrid, London or Manchester to take in the big games as an additional (in some cases alternative) ritual to that of putting on their tefillin at the Western Wall. The European soccer grounds have become places of pilgrimage for people from all round the world, and tickets for the big games are sold at astronomical prices, as the demand – even at venues with 70,000-80,000 seats – far outstrips supply.
Money has taken over the Israeli football scene as well. Players are demanding wages on par with some of their European colleagues, despite the fact that their skill level is far below that of even the middle-level players in Britain, Spain, Italy, France, Holland and Germany. They demand the superstar status reserved for the Messis, Ronaldos, Rooneys and Kanes, but display little of the discipline and behavior demanded from their European colleagues.
Those few (and growing fewer) Israeli players who make it into one of the European leagues have not had much success, and have been shunted from the reserve bench of one team to another, before finally returning to Israel to finish their careers. And time after time, the Israeli national team fails to qualify for either the European or World Cup competitions.
There have been a few Leicester-type experiences. The rise of Kiryat Shmona for a short period, or the recent success of Hapoel Beersheba, have suggested that the monopoly of Maccabi Haifa, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Betar Jerusalem can be broken. But it has been a short-lived experience as they then fall back into mediocrity which, it is hoped, will not be the experience of Leicester. But the world will continue to watch even the mid-level teams in England, which are a higher quality than the top league in Israel.
During the past 20 years, the UK has experienced a major program with stadium modernization and rebuilding.
Thus is partly due to the old and dilapidated condition of most of the stadiums, which were built in the early twentieth century and which provided weekend entertainment for working class audiences. Supporters would step out of their front doors on a Saturday afternoon, go for a drink in the local pub and then move on to see their local football team, after a hard work week in the factories or the mines. Today, it is more common to see the supporters arrive in their cars from the suburbs, while many of the old housing areas have been demolished and now serve as car parks for the weekly visitors.
Israel too has also experienced a significant growth in the construction of new football stadiums to replace old and inadequate installations, some of them from the pre-state era. The Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem (named after former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek), new stadiums in Haifa, Netanya and the recently completed stadium in Beersheba have been constructed to a high standard, on par with medium- size stadiums in Europe. Given the scale of the Israeli game, there is probably no more need for additional modern stadiums, with the exception of a national stadium in Tel Aviv, either on the site of the run-down facility in Ramat Gan or at Bloomfield in the south of the city where both Hapoel and Maccabi now play their games.
Israel is both fortunate and unfortunate that owing to political reasons it is affiliated to the European (EUFA) soccer tournaments, rather than to the Asian association. Fortunate because it allows, once a year, a big European name to play a game in Israel, or for Israeli teams who have qualified for the early rounds of these competitions to travel to Europe to play, and experience what the game is really about. Unfortunate, because the level of the Israeli game is equivalent to the lowest teams in the European competitions and they invariably fail to qualify beyond the early rounds and get knocked out, often humiliated, very early in the season.
In the Asian leagues, from which they are excluded for political reasons, they would have a chance of advancing to later stages of the competitions and even an outside chance of becoming champions. But tell an Israeli that the price to pay for making peace with the Palestinians and finally become an accepted part of the Middle East is that they would have to leave the European leagues for their Asian counterparts and it is highly likely that most of them would respond that this is far too high a price to pay for peace. If we have lived with ongoing conflict and compensatory European football affiliations for so long, we can continue to do so in the future, even if it means that we will never achieve any major victories or success. Israelis will always prefer the option of playing at Barcelona or Milan to facing off against Zamalek in Egypt.
I would like to wish Leicester much luck, but as a fanatical Tottenham supporter my generosity of spirit does not reach that far, until it becomes mathematically impossible for Tottenham to overtake them in the final few games of the season. If traveling to London for the final game to see my team (and it has remained my team despite being over 30 years in Israel – as indeed do all sports teams to immigrants and expatriates) win the championship means missing out on my university degree ceremony, then so be it – life is all about priorities, especially those which only occur once or twice in a lifetime as compared with those that repeat themselves year after year. And if along with either Leicester or Tottenham my local Israeli team (for the moment at least), Hapoel Beersheba, manage to cling to top place and win the Israeli league (even if they do play in the hated red of the other North London team), then it will have truly been a year of the minnows and can only be good for football in both countries in the long term.
The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben Gurion University and a fanatical lifelong supporter of Tottenham Hotspur. The views expressed are his alone.