The Last Word: Arbeitman gives Haifa fans a reason to cheer for him

Saturday saw the young striker finally make his mark with a more-than-impressive, four-goal haul in Haifa's 6-1 rout of Hapoel Petah Tikva.

jeremy last 88 (photo credit: )
jeremy last 88
(photo credit: )
It's been a tough season for Shlomi Arbeitman. In fact, the young striker has had a difficult time since moving to Maccabi Haifa from Betar Jerusalem a couple of years ago. Like many promising soccer players in the early stages of their career, Arbeitman was constantly touted as the newest shining prospect in Israel. But in Haifa he failed to break into the regular starting 11 and until last weekend had scored only four goals in the Premier League. Saturday saw Arbeitman finally make his mark with a more-than-impressive, four-goal haul in Haifa's 6-1 rout of Hapoel Petah Tikva. The strikes were top quality and if he keeps playing like this, Arbeitman could be propelled onto Dror Kashtan's national team squad in time for the two crucial Euro 2008 qualifiers at Macedonia and Andorra in June. It was great to see that the pressure had not taken its toll on young Shlomi. Until its elimination from European competition at the hands of likely UEFA Cup finalist Espanyol, Haifa had an appalling domestic league season and Arbeitman's goal drought didn't help. What was also heart-warming was the reaction of Haifa's fans. Like the other three 'big' soccer clubs in Israel (Betar Jerusalem, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Tel Aviv), Haifa always attracts an army of passionate supporters at its matches. It was clear to see that the fans have taken Arbeitman to their hearts and were delighted to witness the boy come good. By the end of Saturday's game, as expected, the thousands at Haifa's Kiryat Eliezer Stadium were singing Arbeitman's name, showing him how important they felt he was to the club. Coming from England, the passion of support in Israeli soccer can be something to behold. While the clubs outside of the main four usually play in front of miniscule crowds, however big the game, the Tel Aviv teams, Betar and Haifa are well supported, which creates a fervent and intimidating atmosphere at their home stadiums. Israeli soccer fans are massively different than their English counterparts, and have much more in common with the supporters of clubs in Italy or Spain. In England, especially since the introduction of all-seater stadiums, the atmosphere is often nonexistent even - or even especially - at the grounds of big teams like Manchester United or Arsenal. The Gunner's Highbury Stadium has been nicknamed "The Library" for a reason. The constant supply of high-level soccer has tamed the crowds in England and left them acting as if they are the audience at a theater. In Israel, it is the exact opposite. One reason may be that, for most sections of Israeli stadiums, fans are not given a seat number and are therefor forced to arrive early to grab the best positions. But besides this, there is an innocence and deep passion to the Israeli fan which has disappeared from the English game. Unlike in the UK, ticket prices aren't exactly over the odds, especially for season tickets, so it is still the local people who live in the area who go to the games. While Hapoel Tel Aviv, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa have their passionate fans, nothing can beat the Betar support, which is constantly creating new chants for the other fans to learn. For the Betar faithful, there's nothing like standing on the Mizrahi stand with a couple of thousand like-minded soccer-crazed Israelis. As the season reaches its climax, it will be quite a sight to see as the Betarim explode into ecstasy if, as expected, Betar clinches the league title for the first time in nine years in the coming weeks.