betar jerusalem 298.88.
(photo credit: www.beitar-jerusalem.net)
T here is a feeling in Jerusalem that this could be the season when the capital's teams at last come out on top - both in soccer and in basketball. For too long sports in the holy city have been second best, at best. The last time Betar Jerusalem won the Israeli Premier League was in 1998 and Hapoel has not won a basketball honor since the State Cup in 1997.
But a combination of the influx of cash into the clubs - bringing better players - and the weakening of the opposition, has created an optimism in Jerusalem that has not been felt for a long time. After a long pre-season, the basketball league season starts this weekend with what is being dubbed the "Super Classico" - Hapoel versus perennial champion Maccabi Tel Aviv. The soccer season however, is well under way. And, despite a turbulent beginning for the club, with the head coach having been sacked after just five games, Betar is top of the league going into Sunday's crucial home tie with Maccabi Haifa.
That Betar will be favorites to beat Haifa, which has won the league title for the past three seasons, tells a story in itself. It is just over a year since billionaire businessman Arkadi Gaydamak bought the Jerusalem club and promised to make it an internationally recognized symbol of Jewish sport.
For him to do this the team needs to win the league and qualify for the UEFA Champions League tournament. Last season was hit and miss. Betar has had no fewer than six head coaches in less than a year. Gaydamak appeared to believe that bringing in a "big name" coach to run team affairs would attract publicity and quality players.
But after the failure of both Frenchman Luis Fernandez, who coached the team for the majority of last season with little passion and only minimal success, and Argentinean Ossie Ardiles, who was appointed in the summer but was unable to lead the team into the UEFA Cup group stages and then sacked two weeks ago, Gaydamak has gone for a known and loved local legend.
The appointment of former Betar player Yossi Mizrahi as head coach has pleased the club's fanatical supporters. Betar is a club at the heart of the community and Mizrahi represents a time when most of the players came from the capital and played for the crowd in the stands with true passion. Alongside Uri Malmilian and Danny Neuman he was part of the legendary 1976 Betar team that won the State Cup, Betar's first trophy.
Although Betar lost only one of its first five games, winning three of them, there was a lack of passion and urgency in the squad. In the two games since Mizrahi took charge - the 3-0 home defeat of Maccabi Herzliya and the stunning 4-1 away win over Ashdod SC - it has been clear that the team cares more and is playing with a stronger spirit than ever. If he can achieve a win over Haifa then there is no doubt that it will be the team in yellow and black from the capital and not the greens from the north who will be favorites to lift the league trophy in May.
Hapoel Jerusalem's basketball fans are just as passionate as Betar's soccer supporters, with most games at the Malha Arena sold out and filled with bouncing, singing fanatics. Gaydamak was also involved in this team, donating large sums of money to it last year, but it is more the changes at Maccabi Tel Aviv compared with the relative stability in Jerusalem that will buoy the fans of the team in red. On Sunday, while Betar's players are preparing for their game against Haifa, Hapoel will tip off its season against its title rival, Maccabi.
Like Betar, Hapoel also had a bad start to its European season, losing in Russia to Khimki Moscow on Tuesday night. But unlike the soccer team, Hapoel will take some cheer from the game, knowing that there is a long group stage to tackle first rather than an initial knock-out stage.
The strong performances of new players Ed Cota and Timmy Bowyers, as well as last year's fan-favorite Mario Austin, will give hope to the people of Jerusalem that their team can overcome the superstars of Maccabi at the Nokia Arena on the weekend. While both Maccabi and Hapoel have brought in new coaches, the nucleus of the Hapoel team has stayed the same. Israeli Meir Tapiro, especially, contributed important points on Tuesday.
With the problems in Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Tel Aviv this is the season to get behind Jerusalem's best sports teams and show the rest of the country who is really number one.