Ghosts of the past and hints of the future

In the spirit of the Maccabiah, we revisit the capital’s historic soccer sites and their forgotten stories.

Beitar Jerusalem fans at Teddy Stadium in 2013 (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Beitar Jerusalem fans at Teddy Stadium in 2013
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Jerusalem is currently hosting one of Israel’s primary athletic events, the Maccabiah Games.
The Maccabiah – which includes competitions in disciplines like athletics, swimming, wrestling, and soccer – has unique historical symbolism. It is named after Judah Maccabee, the Jewish leader who led the Hasmonean rebellion against Seleucid King Antiochus IV and founded the dynasty that ruled the region during the second century BCE.
This story became a symbol of the fight for religious freedom. This year the symbolism is doubled. Beside the fact that it is the 20th season of the games, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of Israel’s victory in the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem.
While the Maccabiah highlights the connection between Judaism and the State of Israel, Jerusalem’s soccer heritage also carries multiple layers of history, politics, and the social changes that come with the two.
Jerusalem’s first official soccer pitch After the 1948 War of Independence, the Bukharan neighborhood, which was built at the end of the 19th century by Jewish immigrants from Bukhara in central Asia, found itself on the seam line between the new country and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
In 1967, when Israel conquered the eastern parts of Jerusalem, this area had a large Jewish population; today most of the neighborhood’s residents are Orthodox Jews.
In the neighborhood there is a boys’ school, behind which is a muddy bus parking lot. A passerby will notice the rusty, black-and-white metal bars on the lot and recognize the two posts and crossbar of a proper soccer goal.
The school and parking lot are actually located between the remains of Jerusalem’s first official soccer pitch, inaugurated in 1926 in the days of the British Mandate (1920–1948). It served two local clubs – Maccabi Hashmonaim Jerusalem and the British Police Team. Together with Hapoel Jerusalem and St. George, a Christian-Anglican college team, they made up Mandatory Jerusalem’s first soccer clubs.
The first official match of the Eretz Israel Football Association’s national league was a derby between Maccabi Hashmonaim and Hapoel in 1931, during which the former hammered the latter 8–0.
Soccer games first took place in Jerusalem even before that, during the Ottoman period. Arab students and academics who studied in Syria, Lebanon, Istanbul or Europe, together with European Jews who immigrated to the area before World War I, imported the game to the region.
With the arrival of the British in 1920, soccer gained momentum and became increasingly popular among locals. Since 1921, cup tournaments among British, Jewish and Arab teams were played regularly. In the 1928-29 season, Hapoel Jerusalem won the Ragheb Nashashibi Cup, a tournament named after the Arab mayor of the city at the time.
An official soccer association for Mandatory Palestine was established and a combined national team was founded, with British, Jewish and Arab players.
This structure didn’t last long. Tension between Jews and Arabs in Palestine grew, and soccer competitions were divided into separate associations in 1931: the Eretz Israel Soccer Association and the Arab Palestine Sports Federation.
Since the mid-Thirties, both associations functioned separately, Arab players decided to quit the Mandatory Palestine National Football Team and matches between Jewish and Arab teams became rare.
After the massacre of Hebron’s Jews in 1929 and the Arab revolt of 1936, the friendly competition between Arabs and Jews became a thing of the past. From then and until 1948, the pitch didn’t host Arab and Jewish soccer teams together. Today the place serves as a parking lot for buses.
YMCA and Beitar The former YMCA stadium was the legendary home of Beitar Jerusalem, the capital’s yellow-and-black uniformed club and one of the most important clubs in Israel. Beitar was founded in 1936 as the soccer branch of the revisionist Zionist movement of the same name.
During British rule, the club was banned several times from playing due to terrorist acts committed by certain club players against the British regime. Such protests against the establishment became a staple of Beitar’s culture throughout the years.
Until the late seventies, Beitar wasn’t a major club nationally and usually played in the second division.
Beitar fans were mainly from the lower socio-economic and right-wing-leaning residents of Jerusalem, and the club fan base was also active in protesting discrimination against Jewish immigrants from Arab countries by the government.
The YMCA was their fortress, where they felt acknowledged and connected. They terrified their opponents with the rowdy atmosphere of their stands and encouraged their players to be blindly and passionately loyal.
The big shift began when the club won its first Israel State Cup in 1976. The YMCA became a tough place to play for any visiting team.
The club achieved its first Premier League championship title in 1987. Ironically, in that first season they didn’t play at the YMCA because a local astrologer advised the club to change its home pitch to Bloomfield in Jaffa. In Israeli soccer, superstition occasionally leads to action, and this time the thought of “a new place, new luck” made Beitar play on the coast.
Despite a short stint of relegation in the early Nineties, it was then that Beitar started to establish itself as a serious power in Israeli soccer. Names like Eli Ohana and Uri Malmilian, two of Beitar’s biggest icons, defined the newly most popular club in Israel, which was also an institution of the Israeli right wing.
The last match at the YMCA field was a Jerusalem derby between Beitar and Hapoel Jerusalem in 1991.
Despite being played on Beitar’s home pitch, Hapoel won 1–0 thanks to an 81st-minute goal scored by their striker Netzah Mesubi, who sent the Yellows to the second division.
The Jerusalem rivalry between Beitar and Hapoel was never only about soccer, but also demonstrated the division between the Right and Left.
Today the YMCA pitch is history. What’s left of it is an old wall clad in Jerusalem stone and a part of the ticket booth. Instead of a soccer arena, the field was turned into a luxury housing project. Both Jerusalem teams play today in Teddy Stadium in Malha, built in 1991.
Katamon The Jerusalem neighborhood of Katamon (Greek for “under the monastery”) is named for the Greek Orthodox monastery that was a focus of the battle for Jerusalem during the War of Independence. During the previous seven centuries the neighborhood was governed by Mameluke Muslims, Greek Orthodox Christians, Turks and German Templers.
From the corner of Ruth and Rahel Imenu streets one can see what used to be the home of Hapoel Jerusalem soccer club, the Katamon stadium, now an upscale housing development. Founded in 1926, Hapoel was a branch of the Jewish socialist movement.
The red-and-black team, one of the first to play organized soccer in the region, took part in the first EIFA league fixture and reached the Palestine Cup final in 1943, only to lose to the Royal British Artillery team).
After a few years of sharing the YMCA pitch with Beitar, the club moved to Katamon in 1955 and played there until 1982, when the stadium was demolished to make room for Katamon Gardens.
There still exists a tell-tale sign that it was once a soccer pitch. The shape of the central, huge garden surrounded by the buildings seems to conform to the measure of a soccer field.
For almost 30 years, Hapoel was the leading club in Jerusalem. Its top season was in 1973, when the club finished in third place and won the Israel State Cup – its one and only top-level title. Tzvi Single, Nahum Ta-Shema, Tzion Turgeman, Ali Ottoman and all-time top scorer Eli Ben Rimoz were the faces of the team’s golden age in the Sixties and Seventies.
Hapoel was always a team that cherished the coexistence of Arabs and Jews, and some of its big stars were Arab players, mainly from the Beit Safafa neighborhood.
Players like Ali Ottoman, Amer Salman, Mahmoud Salman and Mousa Salman were all indispensable members of the club.
After leaving Katamon in the Eighties, Hapoel Jerusalem lost its city rivalry with Beitar. After 30 years of left-wing rule, in 1977 the first right-wing government was elected and Hapoel, the sports branch of the Histadrut labor federation, began to lose support, especially in Jerusalem.
In a way, there is a correlation between the downfall of Hapoel Jerusalem and the Israeli Left. As Mapai and the Histadrut became less and less influential in Israeli politics and social life, their support for the team was also reduced.
Hapoel’s last significant season was in 1997-98, when the club lost to Maccabi Haifa in the overtime of the State Cup final. From then on, it has been a downward spiral for the club.
Teddy and the Hebrew University Teddy Kollek was the mayor of Jerusalem for 28 years. He was an outgoing Labor Party politician, loved by the city’s Jews and Arabs alike. One of his first moves after Israel reunited Jerusalem in 1967 was arranging the provision of milk for the Arab children of the city.
He spoke openly about keeping Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, but protected the Muslim population’s religious and social rights, a stand that made him an enemy of the Israeli Right.
Before he lost the municipal election in 1993 to Ehud Olmert, he completed the plan for a 14,000-seat soccer stadium for the city’s two clubs, Hapoel and Beitar. The stadium named after him was opened in 1991, and became home for the city’s clubs in 1992.
For Beitar, Teddy Stadium was a huge push forward.
The club won two consecutive championship titles in 1996–97 and 1997–98, and gained its famous nickname, “The team of the country.” The club won both a championship title and a state cup, and added another title during the first decade of the 21st century.
For Hapoel, on the other hand, things worked quite differently. The club was relegated to the second division in 2000 and has not yet managed a comeback to the first division. The team was even thrice relegated to Israel’s third division and faced a horrific financial situation, thanks to the bad management of the club’s owners, contractors Yossi Sassi and Victor Yonnah.
Teddy has since been renovated twice and has now become a lucrative 34,000-seat stadium. It hosted the 2013 U-21 UEFA Euro Final between Spain and Italy, and hosted the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games.
In contrast, Hapoel and Beitar are pretty far from their glory days. Hapoel underwent a huge crisis between fans and management, leading to the establishment of a separate team, Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem, a fan-owned club. It started in the fifth division and played at the Hebrew University stadium in Givat Ram, which hosted a match of the 1964 Asian Cup.
During its 11 years of existence, Hapoel Katamon won several promotions and now plays second-division soccer, with Teddy as its home ground. The new club has initiated an impressive program of social activities in a few of the city’s toughest and poorest neighborhoods, Jewish and Arab alike.
Katamon is working hard for healthy club-community relations. The club wears black-and-red stripes like the traditional uniform of Hapoel Jerusalem. Hapoel Jerusalem itself was relegated to the third division in the previous season and is on the brink of liquidation with an unclear future, due to lingering management issues.
On the other side of the city, Beitar also lost its prestige and faced a fan crisis. The club fan base became more and more identified with extreme right-wing and racist movements.
Beitar is under constant criticism for not signing any Arab or Muslim players. Several attempts have been made to change this policy, but each time was rebuffed by racist fans.
This reached a peak in 2013, when the club signed two Chechen Muslim players. Members of the socalled La Familia, the club’s ultra-fanatic fan group, reacted to this with huge protests, racist chants, and collective abandonment of the stadium after a goal scored by Chechen Zaur Sadayev. La Familia even burned down Beitar’s clubhouse, destroying souvenirs and artifacts from the club’s history.
After the Chechens were forced out, Beitar owner Arkadi Gaydamak also left and so did many fans.
Some of them established Beitar Nordia, a fan-owned club playing in yellow and black. It began three years ago in the fifth division, and this season completed its promotion to the third tier. Its first steps as a club were also made at the Hebrew University stadium, now an historical site of the capital’s two fan-owned clubs.
For the past two seasons, the original Beitar club finished third in the Premier League and is slowly making a comeback.  The writer runs the soccer website BabaGol, covering soccer and politics across the world with focus on the Middle East.