Unfair game?

Tel Aviv sports fans suspicious of municipality, which they accuse of giving priority to high-end real-estate interests.

Hapoel Tel Aviv fans (photo credit: Reuters)
Hapoel Tel Aviv fans
(photo credit: Reuters)
Tzur Sade, a 19-year-old sports fan, is wise beyond his years – so much so that he has parlayed his fanaticism for his favorite sports club, Hapoel Tel Aviv, into a regular column on a supporter website known as Adom Oleh (“red [the team’s color] is ascending”).
Like many sports fans, Sade acquired his fervor for his team from an early age. Since then, he has been hooked.
“It was because of my father that I began following Hapoel Tel Aviv,” Sade says. “Ever since I was six, the team has been a huge part of my life.
Sade is a test case of the volatile nature and the raw, visceral emotions that are generated by the country’s professional athletic clubs. Nowhere is this more evident than in Tel Aviv, where local supporters of his favorite soccer and basketball teams have in recent years unleashed their fury at Mayor Ron Huldai over his decision to raze a number of gymnasiums and soccer fields that are revered by dyed-in-the-wool fans as sacred landmarks.
Fans like Sade vow “never to forget, never to forgive” Huldai for his decision to take apart the Ussishkin gymnasium, a rickety, sweltering, crowded 2,500-seat basketball arena that the municipality says was hooked up to faulty infrastructure and needed to be torn down.
Hapoel Tel Aviv spectators are considered some of the most passionate, knowledgeable fans in Israeli sports, traits that they potently channeled against Huldai by launching a massive public campaign of demonstrations and protests in a desperate bid to save Ussishkin. Some extremists went too far by plastering death notices with Huldai’s name on them. Others spray-painted graffiti on the tombstone of Huldai’s brother. Their efforts, however, were to no avail, as the gymnasium was razed in July 2007.
To the uninitiated observer who has little knowledge of sports, the tearing down of a sports facility may seem mundane. After all, antiquated structures are traditionally removed to make way for newer, shinier construction projects. Just don’t tell that to Sade, who, five years later, still feels the sting of Ussishkin’s demise.
“It’s not just any ordinary building,” he says. “When you follow a team and are devoted to it, it becomes part of your life. Not only do you want to succeed in your life, but you also connect with everything related to the team.
The arena or sports facility becomes a type of home for you, the place where you feel most comfortable in this world. Ussishkin was the home of Hapoel Tel Aviv’s basketball team and its supporters. It was there that we felt like a big, red family. Everyone who came there as a guest immediately got the sense that they were in the home of Hapoel Tel Aviv.”
The Ussishkin episode is rekindled in light of the Tel Aviv Municipality’s plans to begin the demolition of the Maccabiah Stadium, which sits on the bank of the Yarkon River on the grounds of what is today the Tel Aviv Port. Built to accommodate the first-ever Maccabiah Games in 1932, the little-used grounds were once the home stadium of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s soccer team. It was the country’s largest sporting venue until 1950, when the Ramat Gan National Stadium was built.
After Maccabi Tel Aviv moved to Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa, the Maccabiah Stadium played host to youth league games. But that changed in recent years, when the youth teams relocated to Tel Aviv University’s synthetic soccer field. After the Maccabiah Stadium was gradually abandoned, the municipality decided that it was time to seal it off completely and make preparations for its removal.
According to the financial newspaper Calcalist, the municipality plans to use the grounds of the Maccabiah to construct a lucrative tourism and residential center that will include high-rise apartments, luxury hotels, shopping centers and other attractions. The municipality denies this, insisting that the grounds will be refurbished into an open field that will be accessible for public recreation.
ILAN SABAN is a 41-year-old resident of south Tel Aviv’s gritty, working-class Hatikva quarter. Like many of his neighbors, he is an avid supporter of the Bnei Yehuda soccer club, whose old home pitch on Kabir Street is rumored to be on the list of sites that the city plans to raze and replace with high-rise apartment complexes. Even though the team has not played on the dilapidated grounds for over seven years, the thought of its removal is a disturbing one to Saban.
“ T h i s team and this ground symbolize the neighborhood,” says Saban, who makes sure to attend Bnei Yehuda away matches that are played in other teams’ stadiums. “This is what we have in this area. This soccer team is everything for us. It is the heart and soul of the Hatikva quarter, and that’s why we want the team to do well on the pitch. But it’s all a matter of money. Whoever has the money will get ownership of the property. And the owner, whether it is a private entity or the municipality, will profit much more by building high-rise apartments.”
The grounds at Hatikva were declared unsafe by the Israel Football Association, mainly due to the fact that its location – sandwiched between a community center and a crowded residential area – does not provide adequate escape routes in case of emergency. The league declared the grounds unfit for Premier League matches, although the field does serve youth and second-tier leagues.
“The fact that the team doesn’t play its games on its home turf takes away from the soccer experience,” Saban says. “This is a neighborhood where people struggle to get by. By moving the team to [Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa], you force fans to reach into their pockets and pay more money just to get to the matches. When they played here in the neighborhood, families with lots of kids could come by foot and tickets weren’t that expensive.”
A Bnei Yehuda official says that he was unaware of plans to raze the stadium, at least not until the municipality approves plans for a new stadium at an alternative site. A Tel Aviv Municipality spokesperson confirmed this, thus refuting a recent report in Ma’ariv which claimed that the stadium was due for demolition once new owners assume control of the soccer team. Still, sports fans are suspicious of the current mayor’s administration, which they accuse of giving priority to high-end real-estate interests at the expense of cultural institutions.
“Ever since the mayor entered office in 1998, it was pretty clear that he wanted to raze the [Ussishkin] gymnasium,” Sade says. “At first, there were those who claimed that he wanted to build high-rise apartment complexes or a shopping mall on the site. Being completely tone deaf and insensitive to our feeling as sports fans, Huldai brokered an agreement in which Hapoel Tel Aviv would play its home games at Yad Eliyahu [also known as Nokia Arena], that monolithic monstrosity that is so closely identified with its main tenant, the hated Maccabi Tel Aviv. The problem was that Hapoel’s owner, Shaul Eizenberg, signed all of these bizarre agreements with Huldai that did not help in keeping the gymnasium up and running.
“Time and again,” Sade continues, “Huldai ignored the reasonable and logical demands made by the fans and the supporters who headed the protest movement against the razing of the gymnasium. The mayor made sure to evict supporters from city council meetings, and he resorted to antidemocratic methods, like his decision to ban anyone wearing a red shirt from the meetings. Ron Huldai is solely responsible for the razing of the Ussishkin gymnasium.” The municipality did not build high-rise apartments on the grounds of Ussishkin, which was located on the north Tel Aviv street of the same name. Instead, it built a public garden that is an extension of Hayarkon Park.
Currently, Hapoel Tel Aviv plays its basketball games at Hadar Yosef, the gymnasium in which Maccabi Tel Aviv’s basketball team practices and in which its volleyball club plays its home matches. Sade says that Hapoel supporters are working “nonstop to try to secure a home gym for Hapoel Tel Aviv.”
A Tel Aviv Municipality spokesperson says in response: “The closure of the Maccabiah Stadium, just like the razing of Ussishkin, stems from safety concerns. Ussishkin was razed because it was an environmental hazard that posed a risk to the team and the spectators, while the Maccabiah Stadium was neglected. It will soon become an open field for the general public.
“The Tel Aviv Municipality is pouring significant funds and resources into developing and upgrading stadiums throughout the city,” the spokesperson says, citing the NIS 7 million face-lift and refurbishment of the Beit Danny community center soccer and basketball grounds next door to the Hatikva soccer pitch. The municipality says that it has also overseen the upgrade of the David Lewis Tennis Center in Jaffa, Bloomfield Stadium, the Hadar Yosef soccer pitch and the synthetic pitch at Tel Aviv University.