The Israel soccer league came back with a vengeance this past weekend with a number of fabulous games which starved fans were thrilled to have the opportunity to witness after a lengthy break that began in March due to the coronavirus outbreak.
In fact, the level of play on the field was actually a a bit better than when we left off a few months ago, but there was one massive difference in the product that will now accompany the soccer supporters for at least the balance of the campaign; that there were no fans in the stands.
Having gone to close to 4,000 sporting events over the past 40+ years I’ve witnessed my fair share of interesting atmospheres including a few soccer games played “behind closed doors”. However, this time had a very distinctive feeling from the Teddy Stadium press box in Jerusalem for the Beitar versus Hapoel Beer Sheva clash.
I headed out of my home in the Arnona neighborhood of Jerusalem just minutes after the end of the Sabbath at 8:20pm and made record time to the parking lot between the eastern side of the stadium and the Arena. As I pulled in, the security guard asked me where I was going and he directed me right and said park where I please. Should he have told me to go left, I would have been heading into the Covid-19 drive thru check point set up at the facility.
As I approached the press entrance by foot I secured my face mask and met one of the stadium personnel who recognized me immediately and shouted my name in joy, despite my baseball hat and face covering. He as well had a surgical mask and gloves and then took my temperature which I assume I passed with flying colors as he waved me through.
Next I went into the garage area where the television trucks and ambulances are parked and into the stadium I went where another security guard guided me to the stairway that would lead me to the makeshift press box. The press area is currently in the middle of the stands due to construction that will see eight brand new luxury boxes and a new press area one completed. I also noticed that the southern end roof had finally been completed as well with provided a nice cover for the winds that usually whip through the stadium on a spring night.
Once in the press area, there needed to be at least 2 empty seats between each journalist which was not difficult to do on this night and Beitar as well had another staff person that was in charge to make sure that each one of us wore a mask throughout the 90 minutes of play. Press officer Assaf Nachum made sure to acknowledge the press in attendance with a big wave and I’m sure an equally large smile through his mask. The reserve players were also placed in the stands and not in the dugout on the bench in order to keep proper distance between them as well.
Playing any sport in an empty stadium is a challenge for both the players and the journalists but on this night you would have never, ever known it. Players slid for the ball, ran as fast as they could, played rough and tumble soccer but also kept an incredible pace going up and down the field as if there were over 30,000 fans in the stands. They did of course know that tens of thousands were watching at home and at least on TV the broadcaster pumped in phony fam noise to give the feel that the stadium was overflowing.
In fact, Beitar used Zoom to show many of their season ticket holders and club members on the big screen at the stadium cheering the players on in a unique twist that I am sure other teams will follow suit. As well, the yellow-and-black sold special game day home packages with a jersey, scarf and two Carlsberg Beer Bottles as many took advantage of the offer to be as close as possible to the love of their life.
Beer Sheva broke the ice with a Tomer Yosefi goal early on in the second half and yes the players did celebrate a bit. It’s not easy not to celebrate a goal and the league won’t discipline players that do understanding that there is just so much you can control on and off of the field.
Beitar drew even a bit later and to celebrate Levi Garcia did back flip after back flip which looked like he was trying to stay away from his teammates, but they found him eventually anyways as they congratulated him on a magnificent strike. As the game headed into the dying minutes, defender Antoine Conte was shown his second yellow card for a reckless tackle and was sent off with a red card leaving the host with 10 men, but Roni Levy’s squad were able to quell Beer Sheva and split the points.
Following the final whistle, instead of a press conference we headed down the stairs and towards the exit as the team would be sending the journalists quotes and other videos to use at their various media outlets.
However, once we went down the stairs we heard the distinctive voice of long time team staffer Meir Harush screaming through his mask to anyone who would listen that the referees had called way to many yellow cards and fouls on Beitar. One could see the rage in his eyes which we’ve all seen for decades. Somethings may be different now, but there is still plenty that is the same.