The Last Word: The show will go on

At times like this, it's difficult for sports journalists to concentrate on their jobs.

jeremy last 88 (photo credit: )
jeremy last 88
(photo credit: )
Up until the last few days, many people around the world associated Haifa with only one thing. In recent years, the city has established a reputation for producing the best soccer team in Israel, as well as molding some of the most promising young Israeli players. It was at Maccabi Haifa that Yossi Benayoun, Dudu Awat and Haim Revivo - to name but three - honed their skills before moving on to bigger and better European clubs in cities such as London, Santander and Vigo. The team has also attracted some lesser known foreigners who have gone on to establish reputations, including Nigerian Ayegbini Yakubu, as well as current stars Gustavo Boccoli and Roberto Colautti. And although there has been a relative lack of European success in recent years, Maccabi Haifa is the team to have had the biggest impact on the UEFA Champions League, famously beating Manchester United in the 2002 group stage. But on Thursday night, that all changed. Viewers of the international 24-hour news TV channels all now know that Haifa is the third biggest city in Israel and is being targeted by Hizbullah rocket attacks, with an attack on Sunday costing the lives of eight and injuring dozens more. At times like this, it's difficult for sports journalists, and anyone else involved in the industry, to concentrate on their jobs. "How can sports matter?," they ask themselves. Is it not time to realize what is important in life and concentrate on the increasingly worrying situation in the north of the country? It is clearly a fine line to draw, but an answer, if not the answer, came on Saturday afternoon in Herzliya. Ofir Azu and his Maccabi Petah Tikva teammates ignored the war and continued as normal with their UEFA Intertoto Cup match against Ethnikos Achnas. They may have fallen to an unfortunate 2-0 loss to the Cypriot side, but Guy Luzon's team summed up an admirable Israeli attitude. It would of course be ridiculous to put any soccer players, especially a visiting foreign team, in danger, but where possible the country has to, and will continue, with life as usual. Ghanaian midfielder Derek Boateng also contributed to the positive feeling on Saturday when it was announced that he was signing to play for Betar Jerusalem next season. Israelis were already impressed with the attitude of Ghanaians after John Pantsil of Hapoel Tel Aviv celebrated Ghana's goals during its World Cup win over the Czech Republic last month by waving an Israeli flag. And Boateng reinforced the Israel-Ghana connection by ignoring the situation in the country and committing to live and work here for the next year, even though he had offers from other clubs. "I'm very happy to arrive in Israel," Boateng said. "I spoke to players that play in Israel like John Pantsil and they said Israel is a fun place to live and I am excited to make friends here." That isn't to say that anyone should ignore the situation in the North, not that it is really possible. This was summed up on Wednesday night when Betar owner Arkady Gaydamak nobly decided to cancel the club's 70th anniversary party in Jerusalem's Gan Sacher. Gaydamak reportedly lost somewhere in the region of $700,000, but for him it just wasn't appropriate to spend Wednesday night celebrating as the family of the two newly kidnapped Israeli soldiers sat at home worrying about their loved ones. It is a fine line. In a few weeks' time the Israeli soccer season will start. Maccabi Haifa is likely to have its Champions League qualifier moved, as may Hapoel Tel Aviv and Betar's UEFA Cup matches. Who knows how long this war will carry on, but Israeli sports clubs, sports supporters and sports media will do everything to continue putting on, supporting and covering the matches that mean so much to so many Israelis.