Kicking up success

Against all odds, the fan-owned Hapoel Katamon is advancing community projects and being promoted to the National League.

Children playing soccer (file) (photo credit: COURTESY NEW ISRAEL FUND)
Children playing soccer (file)
Eight years have already passed since fans of Hapoel Jerusalem decided to set up a new soccer club out of desperation.
The dysfunctional ownership duo of Victor Yona and Yossi Sasi drove the supporters to start a new team, owned and run by the fans, named Hapoel Katamon.
It has been a roller-coaster ride ever since, but perhaps now more than ever, it is clear that Katamon is here to stay.
Being relegated to the third division after a first-ever season in the National League is a blow some clubs never manage to recover from.
However, Katamon required just one season to bounce back and gain promotion to the second division last month, while continuing to make a significant impact off the field.
Katamon always aimed to be more than just a soccer team, looking to enrich its community and contribute to the welfare of the city.
One of the newer initiatives with which it is doing so is its soccer school, which brings together children from the Katamon neighborhood and from predominantly Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem: Beit Safafa, Wadi Joz and Jebl Mukaber.
The initiative was set up by former player and current club sports director Shay Aharon, and is sponsored by the New Israel Fund. The current climate in Jerusalem is not one that encourages such encounters, but soccer has once more proven to be a useful tool with which to overcome suspicion and bigotry.
“From the first moment I arrived at the club, I recognized the potential of such a project and the need for a soccer school in the neighborhood,” recounted Aharon. “We were slightly skeptical at the start, but from seven or eight kids we reached around 100 within six months.
We have 120 kids playing at the moment and we can’t take any more, even though there is a big demand.”
Aharon believes the soccer school’s greatest success is that it has managed to integrate kids from the capital’s diverse population. “We have managed to make soccer a true bridge between everyone,” he noted.
Lior Librowski, coordinator of the “Kick Racism out of Israeli Soccer” project at the New Israel Fund, feels the Katamon soccer school can grow and make a significant change.
“In our last meeting we brought a Jewish woman who speaks Arabic and an Arab man, so that we would be able to communicate with the Arab children. They are little kids and all they want to do is to play soccer, but we wanted it to be about more than soccer,” he explained.
“The kids aren’t suspicious at this age and it is important for us to open them up to ideas of coexistence. We want to build something with continuity that will help bring down the walls of suspicion and hatred between Jews and Palestinians, especially in Jerusalem.”
Around 20 kids take part in each of the sessions, with the children teaming up to play together in mixed sides.
“Some people think soccer is all about violence and racism, but there are also good things in soccer,” Librowski commented. “It helps connect people and is a great tool to bring about positive change.”
Aharon said the nature of the club meant it was always going to be involved in many communal projects. “For us it is a given,” he said. “As a club set up by fans it is only natural that we will be involved in the community. Soccer belongs to the community and if we don’t build the club from the bottom up, it simply won’t exist.”
In addition to making Jerusalem a better place for Jews and Arabs, Katamon is focused on improving its fortunes on the field, with the hope of one day playing in the Israeli Premier League. The club believes that its soccer school will produce players who will be good enough to join the senior team, but for that to happen Katamon knows it requires a far better training complex than the one it currently uses in the neighborhood.
“Our main goal is to enter a new training facility. That is our biggest problem at the moment,” club chairman Uri Sheradsky acknowledged. “The municipality has no solution for us at the moment. They have long-term plans but that won’t do; we need a home.” Aharon echoed Sheradsky’s sentiment.
“We have two main goals: To have a home of our own and when that happens, to set up a strong youth department that will be able to nurture players for the senior squad,” the former captain detailed. “I think those are the two things that will transform us from being an interesting fan-owned club to a professional soccer club.”
The 37-year-old Aharon was a Hapoel Jerusalem icon, playing for the club from the start of his career in 1997 until 2010, apart from two loan spells at Maccabi Petah Tikva and Hapoel Ashkelon. In the summer of 2010 he made what may have seemed to someone from the outside like yet another professional decision, but was far more significant to Aharon and thousands of soccer fans in Jerusalem.
The striker chose to join Katamon, even though the team was only playing in a largely amateur league at the time. He has been the face of the club ever since, becoming the sports director following his retirement last year.
Even though he hadn’t played all season, the club decided to honor Aharon in festive fashion last month, asking him to play with the team one last time in its final match of the campaign against Maccabi Kiryat Ata.
Katamon had already secured its promotion the previous week, meaning the game against Kiryat Ata at Teddy Stadium became a pure celebration of the club’s success and Aharon’s career.
He hadn’t played in almost a year, but Aharon still managed to score a goal in the 4-2 victory, while also twice missing from the penalty spot.
“No screenwriter could have written it up so perfectly,” said Aharon. “At the start of the season I took my medical tests with the rest of the players out of habit, and also took out a player card at the Israel Football Association without giving it too much thought. As the season progressed people began to toy with the idea of honoring me in such a fashion, and once it became clear that we were going to be promoted we knew it would happen. “I think it says a lot more about the club than it does about me.”
Aharon is optimistic Katamon can continue to progress and overcome the big paradox of a fan-owned club. “There is a very thin line between being a fan-owned team involved in the community and between professional excellence,” he noted. “We managed to combine the two this season and that is something that can’t be taken for granted. We need to learn from this and strengthen our professional foundations next season, while continuing to be involved in communal projects.”
With its initiatives in the community continuing to gather pace and with its place in the National League for next season secure, the fan-owned Katamon presents a different model of a soccer club – which is like a breath of fresh air to the local game.
Israeli soccer as a whole, and not just Katamon fans, should be crossing its fingers that the club will continue to prosper.