Don't punish the fans

Children were in tears, adults were shaking their heads in disbelief. I stood in shock. I could not believe what I had witnessed.

hapoel TA fans 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
hapoel TA fans 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
In the past two weeks I attended both the Betar Jerusalem-Maccabi Haifa football match at Kiryat Eliezer and the Hapoel Jerusalem-Hapoel Holon basketball game at Malha. Unfortunately, in both cases the exciting and tightly played contests were not the center of attention. Instead it was the behavior of the Betar supporters, who booed during the moment of silence in memory of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin on the secular anniversary of his assassination, and the throwing of an explosive device by a Holon fan onto the basketball court, severely injuring a security guard. I am a sports junkie who has attended over 1,000 live sporting events. I grew up in Montreal going to Expos and Canadiens games. Later, living in New York, I held season tickets for the Yankees, Rangers, Jets, Knicks, St. John's and Metrostars. I have traveled across the United States and Canada as well as Europe to attend games. There is nothing like being there live and in person. But I have never witnessed anything close to the events that occurred here in Israel. And yet I have very mixed feelings about the two acts by fans - which could not have been more different. AT THE Betar-Haifa match I was standing with my eight-year-old son at the back of the Betar section, behind one of the goals. During the now-infamous moment of silence I could not hear a thing that was being said over the loudspeakers. I looked out onto the field and saw a sign in memory of the Haifa youth player who had been murdered earlier in the week, and then the booing started. The people around me could not understand what all the boos were about, and it was only on the way home that I was able to hear on the radio what had transpired. The media and politicians are up in arms about the jeering, but I cannot see what the big deal is. The issue here is cut and dried. One goes to a game to enjoy a night out with friends or family. The match also allows for the opportunity to vent, scream and yell to let out pent-up frustration. A highly-charged football match is not the right time or place to hold a moment of silence for a prime minister. The booing by Betar fans, both young and old, who did hear the announcer was nothing more than freedom of expression. DURING A game you can say what you like, but you cannot make threats, enter the field of play under any circumstances or throw objects at the players. Say what you please, boo as much as you want, but don't cross the line of affecting the actual play of the game. And that is exactly what happened at the Jerusalem-Holon basketball game. The line was crossed. The innocence of Israeli basketball had been lost. Sitting in the press row, I saw security guard Yoav Glitzstein race onto the floor during the course of play to pick up an object the size of a softball. As he reached the sidelines in front of the Holon bench the device exploded in his hands and the loud blast echoed through the arena and pandemonium ensued. It looked as if he was dead. We all thought it had been a terror attack - which it was, except that the perpetrator this time was a so-called fan. Children were in tears, adults were shaking their heads in disbelief. I stood in shock. I could not believe what I had witnessed. Players and management were stunned. Some of the foreign players were looking for their wives, some looking for a way out of the country. And who could blame them? LOOKING BACK at the Betar game, the booing by the visiting Jerusalemites plainly expressed opposition to Oslo and all the tragedy that came with it. For Betar fans, Oslo is a black-and-white issue. I don't recall a punishment ever being handed down to Bnei Sakhnin supporters who booed during "Hatikva." What will playing matches in front of an empty stadium accomplish? Nothing. Collective punishment for an action that deserved no punishment at all is not the way to go. It will just create more animosity toward the Israel Football Association. Perhaps this is a prime opportunity for the IFA to set up a commission to work with supporters from all the clubs to come up with better ways to create a positive atmosphere in and around the matches. There should be a total reform of how the security, police and football authorities treat the supporters. Limiting the number of tickets available for the visiting supporters would also decrease hostility between clubs at the matches. ISRAELI BASKETBALL games have always been fun and safe. Security has always been good. Even this past Sunday night with my press pass I was searched very efficiently. Hundreds of parents send their children to Hapoel Jerusalem games by themselves as the kids sit together as a group behind each basket. This was the last place one thought a terrorist attack would occur, yet it did. The Holon "fan" and his friends should be locked up for 20 years if found guilty. And Holon, which has a history of hooliganism, should be forced to play the remainder of the season in an empty home arena. Basketball Super League chairman Avner Koppel's newly instituted penalty of one round of games with no fans for throwing something onto the court is not enough. The police and the basketball clubs have to know that this type of behavior will not be tolerated under any circumstances, and that severe penalties will be dished out. This is the time to send the clear message that safety and the game atmosphere are of utmost importance. As Gidi Dudi, the Hapoel Jerusalem spokesperson, told me: There's no respect for the law and no discipline. Let's hope against hope that this atmosphere changes. But I doubt it. The writer is a Jerusalem-based sports journalist.