Israel has a few very tough places to play if you are the visiting side. In uncanny circumstances those two pitches were played on Sunday & Monday evenings with the hosts welcoming ironically their most fierce rivals.
There is no question that Doha Stadium in Sakhnin along with Kiryat Shemona offer some of the best drama that the Ligat Ha’Al, Israel’s Premier Football League has to offer. This is especially true when the opponents are Beitar Jerusalem and Maccabi Tel Aviv respectively.
Those rivalries sometimes mean more to those not on the playing field which is of course the case anytime Beitar Jerusalem visits Bnei Sakhnin in the Arab Israeli town in the Galilee. Unfortunately we always seem to get more action surrounding the match than the match itself, but that is what is to be expected when these two sides, cultures, religions, politics and football meet at the apex of Israeli society.
With the difficult situation in Israel these days an always explosive affair ramps up even a few notches higher than usual. With 1000 security personnel keeping order in Sakhnin 800 or so Beitar supporters needed to assemble at a nearby park and then be shuttled over to the stadium under police escort.
If you thought this was wartime atmosphere, you wouldn’t be far off on that assessment. Each fan needed to go through a security check one by one once reaching the stadium which resulted in the last to enter the stadium by the 60th minute! If you think this was a bit too much, then you’re probably correct.
Meanwhile in Kiryat Shemona the northern city needed the two hours just prior to game time to drain the pitch of excess water that literaly soaked the grass creating massive puddles throughout the stadium. The staff worked hard in order to welcome the over 3000 visitors from the “Mercaz” the center of the country around Tel Aviv to their city as best as possible.
Knowing that this may be the biggest gate of the season everyone wanted the match to go off without a hitch. In a game featuring two of the league’s best teams thus far on the field of play Kiryat Shemona, a town which does not have the same rich past as Maccabi Tel Aviv wanted to show that they can play with the big boys. And that is precisely what they did.
With a quick goal in the first minute Rodgers Kola gave the hosts a 1-0 lead which they held until former Maccabi Tel Aviv protege & Israel international Roie Kehat doubled the lead against his former teammates. Of course what would a Tel Aviv match be without an Eran Zahavi goal and he got his on a late penalty but it was too little too late.
The result was a credit and tribute to the best of what Israel Football can offer. A tight battle at the top of the table with a competitive balance even though budgets may not be. A celebration of football and sports in Israel at its best and in its purest form is what we got in the Upper Gallilee.
However the scenes in the lower Gallilee inside of Doha stadium was a mix of fueled hatred, racist chants coming from both sides, right wing and left wing politicians littering the stands and an incessant dislike for each side. Arabs versus Jews and Jews versus Arabs. It was nothing more and nothing less than what has been seen, heard and by the Israeli public throughout the Holy Land since this summer’s war with Hamas.
The sight of the blue and white Israeli flags held by the Beitar faithful and the PLO version being waved by the Sakhnin Ultras was the epitome and root of this matchup. This described each group’s sentiments exactly and feelings as to how each side views the Land of Israel.
The football played on the pitch Sunday night didn’t break any records as Sakhnin came away with a small 1-0 win but it was that victory that sent the Arab Israeli village into ecstasy celebrating not only the 3 points that their club earned but much more than that. They were able to celebrate with pride that they had beaten the “big boys” in yellow and black as their crew left the stadium with their tails between their legs in embarrassment and sadness.
Did you know that this was also the 11th straight attempt that Beitar has walked away without a win? So in the main scheme of things nothing has changed and the status quo has remained intact. Something like what all the sides want to hold true politically in the country.
But I believe Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Pako Ayestaran said it best after his side’s loss to upstart Kiryat Shemona, “we are our own worst enemies. Only Maccabi Tel Aviv can beat Maccabi Tel Aviv.”
This statement unfortunately rings true with all of us here in Israel both on the pitch but more importantly off of it.