Seeing red

Though their soccer team is battling relegation and accusations of financial mismanagement, Hapoel Jerusalem's fans remain staunch.

adf 88 (photo credit: )
adf 88
(photo credit: )
There's just five minutes to kick-off at Teddy Stadium, but the atmosphere is strangely subdued for a local Israeli league game. With only around 500 supporters in the grounds this is not what Jerusalem soccer supporters are used to. That's because it isn't Premier League leader Betar Jerusalem playing at their home stadium, but their lesser-known rivals Hapoel Jerusalem facing Hapoel Haifa in a National league match. While some 10,000-20,000 fans would generally turn up for a Betar league fixture, the failing Hapoel team is finding it difficult to compete. This is not a new situation. The rivalry between the two Jerusalem soccer teams subsided some years ago after the team in red was relegated to the second tier. But these days there is an even more depressed feeling amongst the Hapoel faithful, who can't see a way back to the top division and blame a dispute over the club's ownership for exacerbating the situation. Hapoel Jerusalem has had an awful season so far and is rooted at the bottom of the National League, having lost six games and gained just eight points from its first 11 fixtures. It is even more difficult for the local fans, who know that Betar is going from strength to strength - in first place in the top division, and aided with billionaire owner Arkadi Gaydamak's money. Shimshon Tzomi, 54, has been following Hapoel since 1963. "When I first started watching Hapoel it was the number one team in the country, it's hard to believe that nowadays," he says with a sigh as the match begins. "We have some good youngsters but it is not enough. Unless someone like Gaydamak comes in with a lot of money I can't see us getting any better." Hapoel Jerusalem soccer club was formed in 1939. Like most sports clubs in Israel, Hapoel has a political connection. Unlike Betar, which has traditionally taken its support from the more right-wing elements in the city, Hapoel's fans generally came from the workers' unions. In the early years it was Hapoel and not Betar which was the dominant team in the capital. In 1973, while Betar was still establishing itself as a top flight side, Hapoel reached its greatest height, winning the State Cup at the National Stadium in Ramat Gan. But as Betar rose to prominence, Hapoel fell by the wayside. In the mid-1980s both teams played in the YMCA stadium, and after Betar moved to the newly opened Teddy Stadium in 1991, Hapoel soon followed. However, Hapoel could not sustain its form and yo-yoed between the top two divisions as Betar became one of the best teams in the country. This finally culminated in 2000 when Hapoel was relegated to the National League. To return to the top division it would need to finish in the top two places in the National League, something it has not been able to do. Now the team looks like it might even be relegated even further to the Liga Artzit, the third-tier league. "If this continues I know we will be relegated," says Ouriah Braunschvig, a 20-year-old Hapoel fan who has been coming to see the team's games since he was 10. "It annoys me to see Betar doing so well, but the reality is that it doesn't matter anymore. We can't compete with them. Each year we say it can't get any worse and then it does." While sitting with the supporters at the Hapoel games at Teddy Stadium one thing becomes clear: The fans' dissatisfaction with the man currently in charge, businessman Victor Yona. He has been involved in a dispute over the club's ownership with former partner Yossi Sassi for a number of years. This came to a head when the pair went to a court of arbitration three years ago to decide who owns the club. Even though the judge ruled that Yona is the owner, Sassi appealed and the case has yet to be resolved. The fans blame Yona for not putting enough money into the team and also accuse him of stealing from the club's funds. Last month a report in a local Jerusalem newspaper produced evidence alleging that Yona had paid monies intended for the club into a separate account. A group of fans, including a local lawyer, is currently analyzing the allegations and hoping to prove to police that Yona broke the law and should be investigated formally. Braunschvig is one of a group of young fans who have been vocally demonstrating against Yona's involvement in the club throughout the season. At the Hapoel Haifa match one supporter hands out fliers encouraging fans to attend another demo at the following week's training session. "We never used to shout and swear like this, but this is a drastic situation," Braunschvig says. "We have to get Yona out. He says he cares about the club, but we know he doesn't and he has been stealing from it." The supporter tells how he and a group of irate fans even visited Yona's home in the West Bank town of Adam to demonstrate outside his house. Yona fervently denies the allegations. "I have given lots of money to Hapoel. I did not take any money from the club," he tells In Jerusalem. "The team is in last place in the league so the fans aren't satisfied. I understand that. I hope that in January we can improve the team. We want to bring new players. I want to strengthen the team and please God bring it back to the top division." Even though the club is in a dire situation, bereft of money and success, there is still a relatively healthy number of supporters at the team's home games. One of the main reasons for this can often be attributed to the politics of soccer in Jerusalem. However badly Hapoel plays and however much success Betar achieves, the majority of fans will not change their allegiance. One of the biggest differences between the two teams is the attitude to Arab players. To date Betar has never employed an Arab player, and when Gaydamak even suggested bringing one last season he was greeted with strong demonstrations from the hardcore Betar supporters. Hapoel, on the other hand, has embraced the Arab community, regularly featuring Arab players in their squads. This season Hapoel's captain and one of its top players is Suleman Amara, an Arab. "We see Betar as racists," one supporter says. "We do not want to be associated with people like that who hate Arabs purely because of where they come from." One example is Tibi Tibi, an Arab who played for Hapoel from 1999 to 2002. Braunschvig tells how in Tibi's first game for the club, a pre-season friendly match against Betar, some of the Betar supporters began taunting him. "Tibi Tibi turned to the supporters of Betar, kissed the Hapoel badge on his shirt, and turned away to continue playing," Braunschvig recalls. "He immediately became one of ours." Last month it was revealed that Tibi had been murdered in a non-racist attack. At the following home game against Ramat Hasharon a sizeable banner was unfurled and placed at the side of the pitch featuring a picture of Tibi and a message of support and condolence for his family. "We went to visit his family and tell them how much Tibi Tibi meant to us," Braunschvig says. The game against Hapoel Haifa predictably ends in another loss for Jerusalem. The following week Hapoel loses to Hapoel Beersheba and coach Yair Asayeg resigns, and has yet to be replaced. Last week there was a little hope when Hapoel gained one league point after drawing 0-0 with Ramat Hasharon. But the team hardly had a shot on goal and the prospects for the future aren't good. Shimshon Tzomi shrugs. "It is difficult for us to see the team in such a bad situation. But when you have been supporting a team for so long you can't change your allegiances. Let's hope it improves."