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There was an unusual atmosphere at Betar Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium on Sunday night. Instead of the loud, passionate chanting from a frenzied crowd that usually fills the stands, there were 150 or so die-hard supporters who were not interested in the match being played on the field.
They came to honor the Betar Jerusalem team that 30 years ago made club history under the stewardship of one of its greatest stars. The field on Sunday was filled with players in their 40s or 50s, many of whom played for the club during that classic season.
For Betar Jerusalem fans, 1976 was not just any year. It was the year the club from the capital came into its own.
The team was made up of a group of youngsters, most just 21 or younger and who had only played on the first team for a year or two.
But the skills of Uri Malmilian, Danny Neuman, David Yishai and Victor Levy made a massive impact on the local soccer establishment. And, against all odds, Betar won the State Cup for the first time in front of 50,000 fans at National Stadium in Ramat Gan.
At only 23 years old, Yishai was the captain and inspiration for the team that also finished second in the league and became a symbol for the Betar fans.
Yishai, a Jerusalem resident for most of his life, spent the majority of his career at Betar and after he hung up his cleats, continued to play, and then coached the Betar Jerusalem veterans team, which at times included the great Malmilian.
In 2003, Yishai tragically died of a heart attack.
On Sunday, his former teammates came together to pay tribute to the man who led them to glory in the season that kickstarted the Betar era.
This was the third annual David Yishai Cup, each year played against former players of the now defunct Shimshon Tel Aviv.
Everywhere you looked were famous faces from a bygone era.
Yossi Mizrahi is now the head coach of Ashdod SC, but in '76, he was the fearless goalkeeper who often saved the day for the Jerusalem team.
"This is not just any game," Mizrahi said. "I grew up together with David Yishai, from the youth team through to the first team. He was a very good friend."
Mizrahi explained how soccer has changed in recent years. "At the time, 90 percent of Betar's players were from Jerusalem. If you wanted to play for Betar then you had to be willing to give your all or you were out. Be someone who fights for the badge, not for money."
Another former teammate, Moshe Ovadia, now lives in New York but flew into Israel especially for the game. "It felt amazing to win the cup," he remembered. "Thousands of fans followed us back to Jerusalem. We needed a police escort."
Yishai's brother, Ofir, came to Teddy to watch the memorial match with his four sisters. "I was 12 years old when my brother lifted the trophy for Betar," he recalled. "It was a wonderful day. I lived in Jerusalem at the time and everyone in my class at school was so happy the next day.
"David was a great man, a leader, a family person. He always helped people and did a lot of good for people."
Yishai's sister, Chaviva, added, "It feels wonderful to see all these people come together to remember my brother. It is like he is here. It is like it was when we used to go to watch him play."
The fans in the stands might have thought the game itself would have been a gentlemanly affair. But from the kickoff, it was clear that these players have not lost any of their passion or competitive spirit. They may have been a little older and less fit than your average professional soccer player, but most of the participants play in the weekly veterans league and have kept competitive.
Malmilian used to play regularly for the veterans, but no longer has the time as he currently coaches Hakoach Ramat Gan, which was promoted to the Premier League last season.
However, he did not miss the opportunity to perform in front of the crowd at Teddy, which was delighted to see Malmilian play the entire 90 minutes constantly displaying his skills with little backheels and clever passes confusing the Shimshon defense.
Shimshon went ahead in the first half through Nir Balisa. In the second period, Malmilian pulled one back from the penalty spot, forcing the game into extra time.
But Betar was unable to close out the Tel Aviv team, with Yuval Kapitonik scoring the golden goal to win the trophy for the second time.
Shimshon captain Tzahal Admoni graciously accepted the trophy and dedicated it to Yishai's family.
"This is sport and you always want to win, so of course we are satisfied with the result," Admoni said after the game. "But I am proud to be able to honor David Yishai in this way. He was a great man and I hope we can continue this event for years to come."
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