Betar crush 298.
(photo credit: AP)
Betar Jerusalem is by far the most controversial soccer club in Israel. With its patriotic and right-wing roots, the yellow-and-black have the biggest and widest fan base in the country.
Teddy Stadium's "Mizrahi" (East) stand is considered the stronghold of Betar's hardcore fans. The talk in this area is often the harbinger of what's going to happen after a Betar match. Most are working-class people who freely voice their opinions on various subjects, especially political issues.
I found the atmosphere at Sunday's fixture against Hapoel Petah Tikva to be surprisingly charged. With Betar winning its last Premier League championship back in 1998, the Mizrahi stand's core was unwilling to settle for less than a shutout against the recently-relegated club and the boiling point arrived in the second half.
Yossi Mizrahi's team grinded out a hard-earned 2-0 victory, which included a late goal by Aviram Bruchian but did not clinch Betar's first Premier League title in nine years. The Mizrahi stand erupted with ecstasy, knowing that the team needed only one point to secure the historic championship.
The police were determined to restrict the celebrations, but their efforts were to no avail.
The Betar players relished the festive atmosphere and sprinted towards the Mizrahi stand to thank the fans. Tens of wild fans crossed the two-meter high fence with ease and invaded the field, with many more making way to the fences. This was the point of no return, as anyone but the police saw.
Despite knowing that there was no way to avoid the intrusion, security personnel insisted on keeping the gates to the field locked. Hundreds of fans were trapped in a stampede and I felt myself, among numerous kids, unable to avoid being pressed against the fencing.
The police resistance eventually was cracked, and hundreds of jubilant and relieved fans burst onto the pitch, with most of the Betar players being stripped of their uniforms.
Ambulances and paramedics were rushed to the scene to treat injured fans and police officers. The scene outside the stadium was reminiscent of a war scene and not a soccer match.
The police did not do their job properly, just like in Maccabi Haifa's championship celebrations six years ago when teenager Amir Rand paid the price for just being a soccer fan. Rand is still paralyzed.
Sunday's most severely injured kid, Shahar Lazar, fortunately regained consciousness with no permanent damage.
The Israel Football Association has to ensure that such incidents don't reoccur and it has to work fast. Betar plays archrival Hapoel Tel Aviv in a potentially explosive fixture this weekend. Jerusalem is expected to celebrate the championship it clinched on Monday when Maccabi Tel Aviv was deducted points, while Tel Aviv's fans are not expected to be passive observers. Solid strategic planning by the police will be required.