The Last Word: The great escape?

One of the best things about being a sports fan is the unpredictability, especially with the underdog and especially in soccer.

While all eyes are focused on Betar and the yellow-and-black march toward the Premier League championship, there has been an amazing turnaround at the capital's less fashionable soccer club: Hapoel Jerusalem. Just a few months ago a visit to Teddy Stadium on a Friday was nearly always a recipe for a quiet and relaxing afternoon. Hapoel, once a force in Israeli soccer, now plays in the second-tier National League. But until recently this season had become one of the worst in Hapoel's history. Each game the play had been no less than appalling and the fans began to lose interest. The team lost game after game, leaving the last few Hapoel faithful frustrated and consigned to accepting the inevitability of the team's relegation to the dreaded third division. Already pitiful attendances were dwindling, the team was being abandoned and the fans who did turn up constantly turned their frustration on the owner Victor Yona and his questionable handling of Hapoel's delicate finances. As well as chanting distaste for Yona, supporters spent months calling for the return of former coach Michel Dayan. That was back in mid-December and it all seemed a little wistful thinking. Even with Dayan, once the wonderboy of Hapoel, how any coach could take a bunch of men playing some of the worst soccer ever seen in this city and turn them into a winning team was anyone's guess. But cometh the hour, cometh the man. In came Dayan and how the results and performances have changed. Two weeks ago Hapoel moved out of the bottom spot in the National League following a storming 2-1 home victory over Hapoel Ashkelon at Teddy Stadium with a stunning last-minute goal by Adir Mauda who fired the ball into the top left-hand corner of the goal on the half volley. -The reds followed up the win with an impressive 0-0 draw away at Hapoel Ra'anana last week to move into ninth place and will consolidate a position outside the relegation zone with a positive result against Bnei Lod, currently one place below Jerusalem but equal on points. The atmosphere at Hapoel games has suddenly changed considerably. The fans' passion has been reawakened by their team's increasingly impressive performances and, unlike at home games earlier in the season, the hardcore Hapoel fans spent the entire game singing, bouncing and urging the team forward. The game against Ashkelon was the turning point in Hapoel's season. Some 3,500 people attended the game with numerous flags and banners decorating the stands. One of the best things about being a sports fan is the unpredictability, especially with the underdog and especially in soccer. It's one thing to support a winning team and revel in the success. There are enough fans of Barcelona or Chelsea. But to see a less popular team come back from the brink of sure defeat, against all the odds, is one of the more satisfying, exciting and electrifying experiences. And while it's one thing to see a team return from a losing position to win a game, one of the most amazing sights is the great escape, when a team seems a shoe in for relegation and manages to turn its season around in the last few weeks. Often it is a change in management that instigates a new belief in the players and a change in form. This has definitely been the case at Hapoel. Clearly Dayan is the man the fans - and Yona - have to thank for the team's change in fortunes. Back in January there was little doubt Hapoel would be forced down to the third division, and unlikely it would remain outside the bottom two slots. On Friday fans finished the game singing the praises of the players and Dayan himself. It could be safe to assume that this situation would do nothing but amuse the Betar fans, satisfied to watch the debacle at Hapoel from the heady heights of first place in the Premier League. But speak to Betar supporters and, despite their distaste for any team sporting red jerseys, the majority are backing Hapoel and hoping for a great escape. Because the one thing that has been missing from local soccer in recent years has been a Jerusalem derby. Betar and Hapoel have not played each other since the reds were relegated at the end of the 1999/00 season. Betar fans have little love for Hapoel, but they know that if the team in red is relegated it will be that much more difficult for it to get back to the second division let alone the Premier League. Hapoel may be languishing at the wrong end of the National League, but with the inspiration of Dayan and the hard work of his players, the team is suddenly odds on to retain its place and fight for promotion next season.