The Last Word: Deep traditions remain in Israeli soccer

If there's one game which encapsulates the deep-rooted, politically motivated passion it's Hap TA vs Betar.

If there is one game which encapsulates the deep-rooted, politically motivated passion of Israeli soccer it is Hapoel Tel Aviv vs Betar Jerusalem.
It has been more than 15 years since politicians and political movements were directly involved in the day-to-day running of the country’s top teams, but the political affiliations most definitely remain.
On Tuesday, the arch-rivals faced off in a crucial State Cup quarterfinal at Bloomfield Stadium, Hapoel aiming to revive hopes of completing an unexpected league and cup double and Betar desperate to salvage something from a poor season by its standards.
The stage was set for a classic match up, but in the end Tel Aviv’s European-level squad embarrassed Jerusalem’s poor excuse for quality players.
Betar’s Barak Itzhaki and Toto Tamuz were the biggest culprits, fluffing numerous opportunities to score, while Hapoel left back Dedi Ben-Dayan once again showed his eye for goal and Gili Vermut wrapped up a 2-0 victory.
The disappointment etched on the faces of the Betar fans seen slowly trudging away from Bloomfield after the game, and the contrasting delightful carloads of horn-honking Hapoel supporters, illustrated just how much this meant to the 15,000 packed into the stadium, even in the days of million dollar transfers and billionaire owners.
It was the tie of the round, and in the days leading up to the encounter the local media was awash with nostalgic stories recalling the heyday of Israeli sports, when men were men and teams had real souls.
Many looked back to the 1983 State Cup quarterfinal, when Hapoel also beat Betar 2-0, but that time in a far closer game made famous by the referee’s decision to allow a Tel Aviv goal which Betar goalkeeper Yossi Mizrahi insisted had not crossed the line.
Listening to the sports discussion programs on the radio while driving up from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv on Tuesday, I was struck by the lack of belief in the Betar camp.
Veteran presenter Meir Einstein was quick to remark that the neshama of Betar no longer exists within the current crop of Betar fans, and 1983 Hapoel squad member Morris Zano agreed while claiming that Hapoel’s fans are the best in Israel at the moment.
Nostalgia is always a strong tool – people over the age of 25 are often happy to point out how things were so much better in the old days.
In this case it is true to say that the political ties were far stronger and specific up until the 1980s, but it would be foolish to dismiss the current generation of fans as simply regular soccer supporters.
Becoming a Betar or Hapoel fan is very different to pledging allegiance to most normal soccer teams around the world, such as those Londoners who choose between Arsenal and Tottenham. A closer comparison would be to the Glasgow rivalry between the Catholic fans of Celtic and Protestant supporters of Rangers.
Here in Israel the clubs also represent the communities, with the vast majority of Betar fans having roots in the families of lower class Sephardis who grew up in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and Hapoel’s traditionally coming from the middle class Histadrut workers.
A large percentage of the fan base has had little choice in deciding which team to support; it was made for them as a result of the community they were born into.
Back in the early years of the state, the supporters didn’t just routinely vote for the Mapai (Labor) and Herut (precursor to Likud) parties, politicians themselves worked with the clubs.
Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin, for example, was Betar Jerusalem’s chairman in the 1980s at the same time as serving as a Jerusalem municipal council member.
Betar fans naturally felt like outsiders, as Mapai held control of the Israeli government for the first 29 years of the state from 1948.
Notably, the famous Mahapach political turnaround that came in 1977 when the Likud’s Menachem Begin wrested power from Labor, was preceded a year earlier by a comparable soccer success.
Betar Jerusalem’s victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv in the 1976 State Cup final, the first trophy won by the underdog club, is now seen as a precursor which paved the way for Begin’s triumph.
Thirty four years later the situation is clearly very different.But although the Betar fans may have moved out of the old neighborhoodsand some Hapoel fans may have even moved to the right, the remnants ofthe old guard still remain and have a significant effect on the makeupof the supporters.
It is this intense emotion which inspires thedevotion that the supporters display each time their team plays, andeven more so when they play each other.
Israeli soccer might notbe the most popular or cultured in the world, but there is reason to beproud of its history and recognize the impressive underlying spirit.