The Last Word: Why Betar will never compare to Man Utd

The J'lem soccer club is still treated with disdain by the majority of Israelis outside of the capital.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Just under two years ago, on March 20, 2006, to be precise, Betar Jerusalem defeated Maccabi Haifa 1-0 in the Israeli Premier League at Teddy Stadium. The win moved Jerusalem into second place in the league standings, a point above Hapoel Tel Aviv but a massive 10 points behind its defeated opponent Haifa. The headline in The Jerusalem Post the following day read "Betar sends a message to Maccabi Haifa." At the time Haifa was still the imperious force in Israeli soccer which had won the first 11 league games of the season and was practically unstoppable in its charge toward its fifth championship in six seasons. But, while Haifa had already practically guaranteed the league title, the significance of it's loss to Jerusalem that Monday in March was clear for all to see. It was the first season of Arkadi Gaydamak's reign as Betar owner and he had his eyes on the top prize. Few believed a turnaround in Israeli soccer could be made so quickly - money can't buy success the doubters said. But how they were proved wrong. It wasn't just money which has caused Betar's rise up the echelons, although it has certainly helped. Twenty-three months down the line and Betar is far and away the best team in the country while Haifa is totally out of contention. On Tuesday night Betar again defeated Haifa 1-0 in the Israeli Premier League at Teddy Stadium, but this time it is the team from the capital that is odds on to win the league with a 13-point lead over third-placed Haifa. The tides have turned so much that Maccabi coach Roni Levy all but admitted after the game that there is no chance of a dramatic comeback in the style of the 1984 Haifa team which won the club its first championship. Levy correctly pointed out that there are still 13 games left to play in the league, but only a fool would bet on Betar losing its grip on first place with its current eight point lead. Sunday's game against second-placed Maccabi Netanya will be key. A win for Betar and the season will be practically over, with coach Itzhak Schum's Jerusalem side on its way to a second successive league title. This continued success should, in theory, make Betar into the Manchester United or Real Madrid of Israeli soccer. When United and Madrid were at their peak in the English and Spanish leagues, the clubs became synonymous with sport from their countries and garnered thousands of supporters from outside of the cities they are based in. Man United was so popular around the UK in the late 1990s and early 2000s that it was regularly joked that hardly any of the fans came from Manchester itself. And the same was apparent in the 1980s with Liverpool. But, with Betar, this just isn't going to be the case, and this is a rare phenomenon. Even though the yellow and black is quite obviously the best and richest club in the country, and this situation looks likely to continue for a number of years, it is still treated with disdain by the majority of Israelis interested in soccer who live outside of the capital. However successful Betar is, it will always be seen as the team run by and supported by uncultured lower class Sephardim. Middle Israel will never want to be associated with the club with the supporters who continuously espouse extreme right-wing views. Jerusalem is generally viewed as a strange out of the way place by the rest of the country and, in general, its soccer team fails to attract support from those who never had a connection to it. If, as expected, Betar improves year on year, there's every chance it will attract higher quality players and the team will start to regularly qualify for the UEFA Champions League group stage. This could even create an anomaly where Jews around the world begin to identify with the club as the main representative of Israeli sports abroad while back home it is far from loved. A lack of professionalism and attention to detail can be blamed for Betar's image problems and if it is to become the popular and successful organization that Gaydamak appears to want it to be, then these issues must be addressed sooner rather than later. If not, it will be a pity that the most impressive sporting institution in the country aside from Maccabi Tel Aviv's basketball team will, in general, be unwelcome within its own borders.