A wild night at Teddy

Betar's phoenix-from-the-flames escape had made me 325 shekels better off, and turned a night of mass mourning into one of a rowdy simcha.

seth freedman 88 (photo credit: )
seth freedman 88
(photo credit: )
Waiting for the number eighteen, you'd think from our faces that we were on our way to a funeral. No smiles, no pre-match banter, not even a frisson of excitement as the glare from the floodlights appeared in the bus window. Here we were - three Premiership-spoiled English boys, slumming it down at Teddy Stadium for want of anything better to do. We were off to watch Betar's first home game of the season. A capacity crowd was expected, since the honor of the capital was at stake - the opponents being Hapoel Tel Aviv, a fixture which stirs up the fiercest of rivalries between the two camps. It was with a degree of trepidation as well as ennui that I approached the stadium. Betar fans are not renowned for their pacifist or tolerant tendencies - witness the carnage that ensues whenever they play Sakhnin - the worst of both worlds is brought out between the right wing nationalists in yellow and their Israeli-Arab counterparts. The night was as humid and sticky as the day had been. I was dressed down, Katamonim style - clad in Pumas, tracksuit trousers and a white t-shirt. My attempts at fitting in with the crowd were in vain, it turned out, since it is de rigueur to sport at least three items of Betar-wear - anything from scarves and hats to necklaces and tattoos. And that's just the women. We entered through the north gate - undergoing security checks every ten meters or so. After five or six times of being patted down and searched, we then braved the hordes battling their way through the bottleneck of the turnstiles. Luckily, my training in army dining rooms had prepared me for how to fight my way to the front of the queue - employing my elbows as weapons, whilst all the time maintaining an apologetic expression, I forced my way through the crowd. We walked out into the stand - and the party was in full swing. The seventeen thousand fans were making more noise than the sixty thousand at Arsenal ever could. Scarves were being whirled around heads at a frenzied pace, supporters leaping up and down like they'd overdosed on tartrazine, and - mais naturellement - the torrential downpour of garinim shells was in full flow. Garinim are to Israeli fans what meths are to a wino. Eighty percent of the ground were devouring the seeds with a demonic fervency - it was like being in a cage with seventeen thousand budgerigars. The cracking of shells gave off a noise like static from a giant radio - and it only got louder as the players ran onto the pitch. The home team was greeted with an almost messianic-devotion. Fans whistled, sang, danced the hora - there was even one song that brought about a kind of mass-duchening, with the crowd bowing as one to the eleven heroes of the hour. This was insane - after all, we all knew what was to come. This is only Israeli league football - but then that's my condescension talking. We - Josh, Ben and me - have grown up watching the cream of British football, marveling at the best players in the world, sitting in the finest stadia in Europe. The last two games I'd been at before this one were at the Emirates Stadium in August (Arsenal v Zagreb) and in Paris in May (Arsenal v Barcelona). Thus my reaction to this match was less of a Betar zealot, and more one of a patronizing uncle at his nephew's school play, benevolently smiling at the amateur dramatics on offer. The Hapoel fans were fenced off at the far end of the east stand - which was lucky for them, considering the unrestrained hostility of the Jerusalemites all around the ground. After an incongruous moment of unity - as the two sets of supporters rose as one to join in a mighty rendition of the Hatikvah - normal service was soon resumed. "Hapoel - hee zona" sang the Betar fans - women and children too. The implication was that the entire Tel Aviv team, coaching staff and supporters were all to be considered whores - and this delightful sobriquet made up the bulk of the baiting aimed at the red army. Crude, but effective nonetheless. However, when the referee made the mistake of awarding decisions against Betar, the crowd's ire was turned towards him instead. "Hashofet homo - aizeh ben zona", they cried. This was interesting - I was starting to put together the family tree here. The referee was being derided as not only homosexual, but also as being the son of a whore. So, if Hapoel were the whore, we could see that the referee was somehow the offspring of the club. His father's identity remained unknown - which tallied with the unsavory occupation of his mother - and, as was intimated by the outing of the referee as gay, we can assume he would not be fathering any children to make his prostitute mother proud. But I digress. The game itself was atrocious in terms of both skill and action. Beforehand, I had placed two bets - fifty shekels on Betar winning one-nil, fifty on them being victorious by two goals to one. The first bet evaporated on thirty-eight minutes, as a non-chance turned into a goal for Hapoel - the stadium was stunned into silence, even the garinim rainfall lost some of its intensity. Cigarettes were lit and smoked, often two at a time, by a crowd growing increasingly stressed by their team's ineptness. (At Arsenal's new ground smoking is banned - but somehow I doubt they'd be able to implement these draconian measures over here. Which is why, for all that the football is infinitely worse, I am far more comfortable at Teddy than down the Emirates). The singing had abated somewhat, both in terms of volume and malice. The crowd were now half-heartedly chanting a song, centered around "Avinu Shebashamayim" - hoping that Divine intervention might save their sorry team. Half time came around - and then I realized why so many fathers had brought their sons to the game. An army of ten year olds, all clutching a twenty shekel note in their hands, raced to the food stalls - acting as waiters for their despondent dads in the stands. The familiar aroma of cheap burgers and Marlboro Lights evoked the atmosphere at stadia the world over, as we watched the substitutes embarrass themselves (and us) with their appalling half-time display of ball tricks. As the second half began, a hail of matchday programs rained down on the pitch from one block of the east stand. The stadium was divided up so that there was a disabled section on the other side of the pitch, the north stand was the disgruntled section, and evidently the east stand was earmarked as the disorderly area. By the time the hour was up, the fans were in a state of total despair. Garinim competed with cigarettes as the item of solace - some people were even smoking their garinim in a state of confusion - and it looked all over for the yellow and black. I was suffering with them - I hate to lose a bet, and it was clear that I was going to here. Then, as it looked as though it could get no worse, a scything tackle from a Betar player earned him a red card, leaving his team down to ten. The mood was summed up three rows from us, as a vicious row erupted between a young thug and his girlfriend. Her only line of defense was to tell him to shut his mouth, repeatedly - though this had the opposite effect. Half of the stand turned their backs on the game and watched the fight develop - but it was prevented from getting physical by some of the more levelheaded fans around them. Back to the game - ten minutes to go. Out of absolutely nowhere, Betar snatched an equalizer. The place erupted as though tectonic plates beneath had suddenly smashed into one another. Delirium ensued, unbridled joy and a whole lot of upended bags of garinim all merged to create a scene of pure delight. As for me, my bet was that little bit closer, but not close enough for me to join in the cheering. "Tel Aviv Olah b'Aish" cried the home fans - and, in injury time, that's exactly what happened. Another goalmouth scramble, another lucky goal - and this time I was right in the fray. Betar's phoenix-from-the-flames escape had made me three hundred and twenty five shekels' better off, and turned a night of mass mourning into one of a rowdy simcha. We danced and sang with the best of 'em - it was, after all, an amazing turnaround. The best celebration of all was the overly exuberant fan who, minus his shirt, broke onto the pitch to hug and kiss the Betar players. They all took it in stride, whereas one Tel Aviv player tried to manhandle the interloper off the field, receiving a yellow card for his efforts. The crowd's whistling for the referee to end the match was deafening - a piercing chorus of white noise that left our ears ringing long after we'd left. And then the final whistle was blown, and the relief in the air was palpable. The celebrants milled around, saluting the jubilant players, before streaming out of the exits into the warm Jerusalem night. I suggested that it would have been near-impossible to get either a taxi or falafel around town, since the demographic make-up of the crowd meant that most of the drivers or vendors had been at the game with us. Conspicuous by their absence were drunk fans - totally at odds with the football fans that I grew up with in London. This crowd were drunk on pleasure - and their sobriety was a good thing too. If this is what they were like on the wagon, G-d knows what they'd have turned into after a few pints. Instead, we walked the twenty-minute journey back to the more salubrious Katamon, where we reside - me that little bit richer, the three of us that little bit more fired-up than when we'd arrived. The team had salvaged the honor of the city, but there was only one real winner. The CEO of Jerusalem Garinim Co. - he could retire on the back of that match.