Israeli soccer fans flock to celebrate local roots

‘We Are the Champions! 100 Years of Football in Israel’ exhibition opens at Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv.

Marilyn Monroe 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Marilyn Monroe 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel is a bona fide soccer nation, larger than any stadium attendance record numbers or TV ratings could ever show.
Since a proper Hall of Fame is still lacking, usually it was up to those in the bleachers to educate and entertain future generations with tales of the local greats. Luckily, a new exhibition steps up from the bench to score a crucial win in establishing a higher regard for the Israeli soccer legends.
“We Are the Champions! 100 Years of Football in Israel”, the exhibition which opened this week at Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, is heaving with rare memorabilia, iconic images and delightfully obscure items.
Trophies, banners and signed jerseys are mandatory, of course, in such a showcase, but the exhibition also airs out 1970s sticker albums, trading cards, defunct sports magazines, various championship songs and even the odd board game to illustrate Israel’s longtime obsession with soccer.
Its humble beginnings here are credited to the Ottoman and British Empires, whose officials kicked the ball around during their respective tenures in the land. The Brits quickly formed the most prominent teams, with their police force side claiming both the league and cup titles in 1932.
But soccer’s immense popularity in Israel was initially drawn from being an integral part of the nation-building tribulations.
The heated sporting rivalry of the Hapoel, Maccabi and Betar clubs was first matched by a fierce political one, as the clubs were sponsored by different parties and organizations within the Zionist movement.
Exhibition games abroad were often held as fundraisers and continued to take place during the early days of Israel as a sovereign state.
In one case as “We Are the Champions!” presents us, it has lead to an incredible photo opportunity of Marilyn Monroe and mighty Hapoel Tel Aviv and Israel goalkeeper Ya’akov Hodorov, before a New York crowd in 1957.
That image alone is worth the price of admission.
Israel’s national team’s few highlights are duly shown.
Interestingly enough, some of its biggest moments were not immortalized by the players’ actions as much as by the broadcasters’ shocked responses.
“We Are the Champions!” displays two prime examples: Nehemia Ben-Avraham’s overwhelmed cry “I hand over the microphone to the crowd!” after Israel equalized against the powerful USSR team in 1956 (before eventually losing 2-1), and Meir Einstein hilariously losing his voice when Israel had beaten France in October 1993, screaming “Goal! Goal! 3-2 Israel!” while amazed commentator Avi Ratzon pleaded “Meir, relax!” Those antics indicate, perhaps more than anything, soccer’s importance to Israel’s moral and self image.
Mostly, the exhibition focuses on the merits of the leading Israeli clubs and its fans but does find appropriate room for the underdogs. For instance, Hapoel Tayibe, the first Arab team to play in Israel’s top division, if only for just one season.
A few related artifacts of that trailblazing yet miserable 1996/1997 stint are on display as well. They serve as a bittersweet reminder of the club which was recently dissolved after numerous relegations to the minor leagues.
For many years, Israeli soccer was a myth largely carried by fans’ vivid childhood memories and unsettling passion. Sadly, its current state of affairs primarily provides ego clashes, violence, shady figures and an uncertain future.
Exhibitions such as “We Are the Champions!” are vital for implementing a better path.
They rise above the petty politics, cheap gossip and play-byplay reports to issue what every fan is ultimately looking for: a sense of purpose.