Posted: 12/5/2006
Title: SOCCER IN THE HOLY LAND

Blog:                                                                                                                         

  Haifa, Israel on the surface is a pleasant Mediterranean city, with a huge and busy docks, and  beautiful Mount Carmel as a backdrop, and supposedly the most liberal and racial harmonious of cities in this small land.  It was in the Ottoman Empire until 1918 and in 1947 was taken from the Arabs by 5,000 Israeli soldiers during the Arab-Israeli War. It's also home to Maccabi Haifa, possibly the most successful team.

  I had been walking on the beach with my old friend Abraham Klein,with whom I was staying in his house on Mount Carmel.  He was a world famous FIFA referee and director of Physical Education with the local education department. We first met while staying at the Camino Real hotel in Guadalajara in 1970. In the Jalisco Stadium in Guadalajara, Mexico on a very hot mid day at FIFA World Cup 1970 ,  defending World Champions England were playing Brazil, two time champions in 1958 and 1962. Referee chief Ken Aston had chosen this 34 year old unknown, because of his fitness. Everybody remembers Gordon Banks unbelievable save, and Jairzinho's winner that day, but Klein had a perfect game. The perfect performance.  "The 80,000 crowd was so loud that the players didn't hear my final whistle. It was such an enjoyable match that I played on a little longer." After the terror of Munich 1972 he didn't go to World Cup 1974 but refereed at Argentina 1978. His big match there was Italy vs Argentina. The Italians won 1-0 and he wouldn't give the Argentinians a penalty. " All referees are fair, but not all are brave." he said. With the fans whistling for blood he didn't lead the teams out after half time, but came out with the Argentinians. He was supposed to referee the final, but  Argentina objected since there were so many Jews in Holland, their opponents. At Spain 1982 his great performance was the Brazil 2vs Italy 3, second round classic in Barcelona, where Pauli Rossi scored a hat-trick, and he was linesman at the final in Madrid.

  Anyway, after our stroll we found an Arab run seaside cafe. We were the only non-Arabs there and it looked as if there could be trouble. I introduced myself and the famous Jewish referee. The mood changed. He was probably the most famous Israeli after the Prime Minister and we were made very welcome and the proprietor wouldn't accept any payment. Maccabi Haifa play at Quiryat Eliezar Stadium and have both Jewish and Arab players. Not for nothing is Haifa called the Red City, with its strong unions. On my last visit I saw players climbing over the stadium wall to train, due to a  strike by city workers, who look after the stadium and wouldn't open the gates. The club has been champion of the Israeli Premier League 7 out of the last 8 seasons. Currently they are in 9th place in the 12 club league, with Beitar Jerusalem and Maccabi Netanya in the top 2 places.

  A couple of weeks ago at the Parc des Princes in Paris, Hapoel Tel Aviv beat Paris Saint-Germain 4-2 in the UEFA Cup. After the match a gang of about 150 PSG 'fans' attacked a French Jewish supporter of the Israeli club. Off duty transport police officer Antoine Granomort, of Caribbean ancestry, came to his rescue and hustled him into the MacDonalds at Port St Cloude Metro nearby. 'Red,White,Blue-France for the French' and racial and anti-Jewish chants from 'The Boulogne Boys'  hooligans. The officer was attacked again and used tear gas to no avail and shot and killed one 24 year old thug and wounded another. Officer Granomort was put into custody pending an investigation, but was defended by the public prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin.  PSG thugs are notorious for their filthy and racist chants to black players.

  Beitar Jerusalum in the capital of Israel were recently bought by Russian billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak.(his son now owns Portsmouth). Their Teddy Stadium(named after the former mayor Teddy Kolek) is one of the most modern in the country, but notorious for its anti Arab chants. The owner wanted to sign a famous Arab -Israeli but the fans suggested there would be violence if he did, and the idea was quietly dropped. He did donate over $450,000 to Bnei Sakhin, an Arab club. That team are not immune to violence and at a match in Haifa their fans rioted and the club had to play their next 2 matches in empty stadiums.

  A group that moniters fan behaviour in the country, New Israel Fund  awarded a peace prize to Bnei Yehuda from the Hativka working class suburb of Tel Aviv for good fan behaviour. The next match at home to Arab team Yanniv Hazout they attacked the fans and players. Football Against Racism, www.farenet.com is a European wide organization. On 7th November Beitar Jerusalem hosted Maccabi Haifa . The teams wore FARE T shirts and carried out anti racism banners at Teddy Stadium. According to Itzik Shanav, press officer for N.I.F., Beitar had been leading the racism index.  Israel are now part of UEFA, and benefit from the greater competition for their clubs and national teams. This contrasts with their former membership of the Asian Confederation where they faced hostility, poorer competition and far smaller income. 

The national team only joined UEFA in 1994 and does quite well, with 3 players on the West Ham United and Bolton Wanderers squads. Only in 1970 did they play in the World Cup Finals, losing 0-2 to Uruguay, tying 1-1 with Sweden and 0-0 with Italy.  With increased sponsorship there are more and more foreigners in their league, with 3 from Ghana playing in the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

  Israel is a very small country, and very fascinating. I have been on a kibbutz on the Mediterranean, floated in the Dead Sea, been to the Wailing Wall, to the ancient port city of Acre, fought over during the Crusades, attended Parliament, driven around the walls of Jericho, been to the Lebanese border, stood in silence in front of the eternal flame at Yad Vashem holocaust memorial and driven by nomadic herdsmen with their flock of sheep near the Sea of Galilee. If you really want to feel safe then travel on El Al Airlines as I did. It's the way airline security ought to be.

 

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