Marilyn Monroe 370.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel is a bona fide soccer nation, larger than any stadium attendance record
numbers or TV ratings could ever show.
Since a proper Hall of Fame is
still lacking, usually it was up to those in the bleachers to educate and
entertain future generations with tales of the local greats. Luckily, a new
exhibition steps up from the bench to score a crucial win in establishing a
higher regard for the Israeli soccer legends.
“We Are the Champions! 100
Years of Football in Israel”, the exhibition which opened this week at Eretz
Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, is heaving with rare memorabilia, iconic images and
delightfully obscure items.
Trophies, banners and signed jerseys are
mandatory, of course, in such a showcase, but the exhibition also airs out 1970s
sticker albums, trading cards, defunct sports magazines, various championship
songs and even the odd board game to illustrate Israel’s longtime obsession with
Its humble beginnings here are credited to the Ottoman and
British Empires, whose officials kicked the ball around during their respective
tenures in the land. The Brits quickly formed the most prominent teams, with
their police force side claiming both the league and cup titles in
But soccer’s immense popularity in Israel was initially drawn from
being an integral part of the nation-building tribulations.
sporting rivalry of the Hapoel, Maccabi and Betar clubs was first matched by a
fierce political one, as the clubs were sponsored by different parties and
organizations within the Zionist movement.
Exhibition games abroad were
often held as fundraisers and continued to take place during the early days of
Israel as a sovereign state.
In one case as “We Are the Champions!”
presents us, it has lead to an incredible photo opportunity of Marilyn Monroe
and mighty Hapoel Tel Aviv and Israel goalkeeper Ya’akov Hodorov, before a New
York crowd in 1957.
That image alone is worth the price of
Israel’s national team’s few highlights are duly
Interestingly enough, some of its biggest moments were not
immortalized by the players’ actions as much as by the broadcasters’ shocked
“We Are the Champions!” displays two prime examples: Nehemia
Ben-Avraham’s overwhelmed cry “I hand over the microphone to the crowd!” after
Israel equalized against the powerful USSR team in 1956 (before eventually
losing 2-1), and Meir Einstein hilariously losing his voice when Israel had
beaten France in October 1993, screaming “Goal! Goal! 3-2 Israel!” while amazed
commentator Avi Ratzon pleaded “Meir, relax!” Those antics indicate, perhaps
more than anything, soccer’s importance to Israel’s moral and self
Mostly, the exhibition focuses on the merits of the leading
Israeli clubs and its fans but does find appropriate room for the underdogs. For
instance, Hapoel Tayibe, the first Arab team to play in Israel’s top division,
if only for just one season.
A few related artifacts of that trailblazing
yet miserable 1996/1997 stint are on display as well. They serve as a
bittersweet reminder of the club which was recently dissolved after numerous
relegations to the minor leagues.
For many years, Israeli soccer was a
myth largely carried by fans’ vivid childhood memories and unsettling passion.
Sadly, its current state of affairs primarily provides ego clashes, violence,
shady figures and an uncertain future.
Exhibitions such as “We Are the
Champions!” are vital for implementing a better path.
They rise above the
petty politics, cheap gossip and play-byplay reports to issue what every fan is
ultimately looking for: a sense of purpose.