The Last Word: The magic of the cup

At its best, soccer's knockout cup competitions provide some of the most magical and fascinating moments in sports.

soccer ball 88 (photo credit: )
soccer ball 88
(photo credit: )
At its best, soccer's knockout cup competitions provide some of the most magical and fascinating moments in sports. And last weekend's ties didn't disappoint. Teams from lower divisions pitted their skills against the so-called superpowers of local soccer - and some of them even won! Having grown up on the tradition of the English FA Cup, I might have dismissed the Israeli version as being largely irrelevant, as many English soccer fans in this country dismiss the Israeli Premier League. But just as I have somehow been strangely drawn into the battle for supremacy in Israel's top division, on Saturday I awoke to the fantastic drama created by the Israeli version. Perhaps Israeli soccer is more open to cup upsets than the English game, with few of even the top flight sides playing high quality soccer. It seemed to be that way on Saturday when supposedly mighty Betar Jerusalem and Maccabi Tel Aviv were each dumped out of the State Cup in quick succession by teams from the National League. Betar was soundly outplayed by Hakoach Ramat Gan, losing 1-0 in the last minute, while Maccabi Tel Aviv was completely embarrassed by Hapoel Acre, going down by an incredible 4-0 scoreline. Both Betar and Maccabi came into this season with high hopes. No more so than the Tel Aviv team that held the - now slightly embarrassing - press conference last summer in which four of the more experienced Israeli players were revealed as the local version of the "Galacticos." How Eyal Berkovic, Avi Nimni, Giovanni Rosso and Avi Yechiel could have been compared to any Real Madrid players, let alone Zidane, Ronaldo et al, is anyone's guess. But it produced enough confidence to encourage a reported 10,000 fans to buy season tickets for the yellow-and-blue's games at Bloomfield Stadium. Just over six months later and the dream of a title in the club's centenary year has been totally smashed by Maccabi Haifa's dominance. And then, any chance of retaining the coveted State Cup went out the window on Saturday evening. For Betar, the disappointment amongst its faithful fans will have been just as hard-felt. Arkadi Gaydamak, who was reported to have been furious about Saturday's loss, has plowed millions of shekels into the club. Following a string of poor league performances, he may be beginning to question the decision to give the general manager job to Frenchman Luis Fernandez. What cannot be denied is the great sporting contests these cup games have provided. The Ramat Gan and Acre fans will hope their clubs will make it all the way to the final and even have a chance of winning the competition. This is clearly not out of the question. A non-top division team has made it to the State Cup Final each of the last three years, with Hapoel Ramat Gan even managing to win the whole thing in 2003, catapulting the club into the UEFA cup. Betar losing to Ramat Gan may not have the worldwide impact of Manchester United's draw with Burton Albion in January or the time Wrexham beat Arsenal in 1992 - but for the local fans it was the equivalent of these legendary encounters.