The Maccabi Haifa fans were out in full force at Ben-Gurion Airport on Wednesday as they painted the entire arrivals area in green following the club’s UEFA Champions League Play-Off victory over Red Star Belgrade that saw the Greens head to the group stages of the prestigious competition.
Children on vacation from school and adults skipping work – dressed in the club’s jerseys from the current season and years of the past – held up flags and banners and sang to their heart's delight to welcome their heroes back to Holy Land.
Over a thousand supporters engulfed the indoor welcome area on the ground floor of the airport all the way to the outdoor parking lot, where a coach bus decked out in Maccabi Haifa logos and colors waited for the players to embark on the hour-plus ride north to the Carmel Mountain.
As they waited, the fans whipped up a contagious frenzy singing and dancing in full force as tension rose for each and every person that stepped through the sliding doors from the luggage pickup zone until finally, about 45 minutes after landing, the first sight of the players was acknowledged by the fans.
Head coach Barak Bachar was hoisted onto the shoulders of the most fervent fans as he was celebrated as a conquering king. Next up was Tjaron Chery, Dolev Haziza and then finally the captain of Maccabi Haifa, defensive midfielder Neta Lavi.
The crowd feted the players with their respective songs as cameras and phones captured the incredible sights and sounds. All types of media, from the written mainstream press to the sports websites and TV channels, were present for the pomp and circumstance as the hazy effects of a green smoke bomb wafted through the air sending the fans into further pandemonium.
As the crowd finally began to thin out, Lavi spoke to the assembled reporters and journalists after his Haifa side overcame Red Star Belgrade in Serbia, after facing a 2-0 deficit situation to draw 2-2 and win the two-legged tie 5-4 on aggregate.
A history of Maccabi Haifa:
The last time Haifa was in the group stages of the Champions League was back in 2009 under the tutelage of Elisha Levy, but that team was unable to score a goal or secure a point in the six games that were played. Prior to that, the Greens were the first team to ever take part in the exclusive tournament when they punched their ticket in 2002 with Yitzhak Shum as the man on the sidelines.
“I’m super excited,” Lavi began. “It’s something we have not yet comprehended, all of us. I think it will take some time to understand what has occurred. We had a great journey in this qualifying campaign and from the first few games until now, we did it as a family. This is a very happy moment for all of us.”
The notion of team unity was something Lavi reiterated.
“We are a very big family and we don’t have one player who tries to be above the team. Everyone is focused on their own job. You are asking what a captain does and I came to the conclusion that I need to have all of the mental traits. I need to let everyone do their own thing and we have lots of players who are able to do just that.”
"We are a very big family and we don’t have one player who tries to be above the team. Everyone is focused on their own job. You are asking what a captain does and I came to the conclusion that I need to have all of the mental traits. I need to let everyone do their own thing and we have lots of players who are able to do just that."Maccabi Haifa defensive midfielder Neta Lavi
Lavi had been out of action for almost the entire season last year but came in ready to go this campaign to help the team reach its goal.
“I have had ups and downs before, I got injured and didn’t play for a long period of time. This season I started really well and I had an excellent preseason. I am really happy that I was able to help the team reach the heights we have achieved.”
The 26-year-old’s family was crucial to his comeback as well.
“They supported me a lot. They are the closest people to my heart. They supported me in the hard times and are now happy that things are going well.”
As for the fact that each of the five Israeli teams that had featured in the Champions League in the past was unable to win the domestic league, Lavi wasn’t interested in hearing much about it.
“Someone told me about that before, so that is just another myth we will have to overcome this season.”
Lavi and Haifa have an Israel Premier League game coming up on Saturday night against Maccabi Netanya, and while Bachar wants to come into the contest in the best possible shape, that may be a challenge.
“I already forgot what happened in our dressing room,” noted Lavi. “Crazy emotions, everyone was happy. We didn’t sleep all night. Like Barak said, we have a game on Saturday and we have to worry about that a bit.”
Speaking of Bachar, who in some circles is being anointed the greatest Israeli coach of all time, Lavi explained what the 42-year-old brings to the club.
“Barak gives us the tools for success. He, first of all, gives us the ability to express ourselves in our own unique way and he provides us the tactical tools on the pitch, which is different for each team that we oppose and which helps us be better overall. But most importantly he gives us the confidence that we can win and helps us believe we can come out on top.”
With so many great teams that feature in the Champions League, Lavi indicated that there was one club that he would really like to face.
“I really like Manchester City. I think Pep Guardiola is very good and I like him a lot. It’s a tough game and I don’t know what would happen.”
The bottom line for Lavi is that a lot of credit has to go to the fans, both those who traveled to Serbia and the ones that were here cheering in Israel.
“Crazy, crazy. I think what’s happening all over the country around the team is crazy. I want to thank our fans who put on a great performance in both games, both at Sammy Ofer and also in Belgrade. We heard the supporters throughout the entire game. Players from all of the teams congratulated us.”