hot soccer player 311.
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
It is exceedingly rare to find any direct comparisons between Italy’s Serie A, one of the best and wealthiest soccer championships in the world, and Israel’s humble Premier League.
While the Italian top flight boasts dozens of superstars on million-euro contracts, vast high-tech stadiums and a massive global television audience, the Israeli league makes do with local talent, mainly dilapidated arenas and a few thousand people watching on Channel 1 or Sport1.
So it was fascinating to see sports fans in Italy and Israel wake up this week to similar headlines dominating the back pages.
Unfortunately, the similarities had nothing positive to say about the attitude of those involved in the most popular sport in both countries. Rather, a minor moral uproar had broken out over the questionable level of effort made by players at Lazio and Maccabi Tel Aviv.
On Sunday, Lazio hosted Inter Milan knowing that a victory over Jose Mouninho’s Champions League finalists would give city rival Roma a significant boost in the race for the league title.
A day later Maccabi Tel Aviv (quite literally) welcomed Maccabi Haifa to Bloomfield Stadium, with the fans of the yellow-and-blue apparently more concerned about gifting city rival Hapoel Tel Aviv the championship by denying Haifa three points than securing third place and a ticket to next season’s Europa League.
In most cases the aim of a professional sports team is to win, or at least avoid defeat.
But this week the historic Rome and Tel Aviv rivalries seemed to take precedence, and both Inter and Maccabi Haifa cruised to 2-0 away wins.
Of course there is no way of proving whether Maccabi Tel Aviv let Haifa win or whether Lazio made no effort to prevent a Milan victory.
However, there was evidence in each of the two games that the pressure heaped on the home team by passionate supporters paid dividends for the fans as neither Maccabi’s nor Lazio’s players were seen to break a sweat in an effort to win their matches.
As a result, Inter went to the top of the Serie A standings, two points ahead of Roma with two games to go. Haifa kept up with Hapoel Tel Aviv, with both teams at the top of the league and Haifa only behind on goal difference ahead of the final two rounds of the season.
Analysts across both countries were rightly outraged, and in Italy even politicians got involved.
According to local reports, Daniele Capezzone, a spokesman for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Il Popolo della Liberta party, called on team executives and players “to provide convincing explanations of what happened.”
It should be noted that Berlusconi himself is no stranger to controversy, especially due to his ownership of AC Milan as well as various media outlets and his use of these outlets to influence voters.
In this case, however, he is correct to highlight Lazio’s apparent lack of a will to win, which was compounded by banners displayed by the home fans in the Stadio Olimpico proclaiming things like “Scudetto: Game Over,” a message aimed at Roma fans that Lazio would not stand in the way of an Inter victory if it meant Roma would suffer.
The power of cross-town conflict usually has a positive impact on a soccer game – nothing compares to the atmosphere generated by fans desperate to see their team humiliate a side from the same city.
But when this rivalry affects the players’ integrity, questions have to be asked.
It is unlikely that any inquiry would unearth footage of Maccabi coach
Avi Nimni or Lazio’s Edoardo Reja directly instructing their team to
lose the match.
But it will be surprising if Maccabi Tel Aviv isn’t seen to put in far
more effort when it faces Hapoel Tel Aviv this weekend than it did
against Haifa on Monday.
Soccer teams have a responsibility not only to satisfy the warped
desires of a section of over-zealous supporters but to play the game at
the highest level possible.
Players and coaches at both clubs should take a long hard look at
themselves and seriously consider the implications of allowing an
opponent to win, as the allegations brought against Maccabi Tel Aviv
and Lazio this past weekend go straight to the core of what makes the
beautiful game the most watched sport in the firstname.lastname@example.org
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