The Power of the 12th Man

Last night I witnessed history at Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv as Hapoel Tel Aviv advanced for the first time in franchise history to the Champions League Group Stage.

Hapoel has played in European competitions for quite some time recording victories over Celtic, Paris St. Germain and Hamburg to name a few of some of the top teams across the continent. However, it was in the secondary competitions such as the UEFA Cup and most recently the Europa League.

Finally the club will make its way into the premier European league and can potentially play against the likes of Manchester United or Chelsea, Barcelona or Real Madrid or even Inter Milan or AC Milan with teams from the top leagues participating in this exclusive tournament.

But one thing last night was very clear, Hapoel will need some help in order to advance out of the group stages or even take a point or steal a game.

The match last night was let’s say, not one of the greatest ever played by any two clubs in the history of game, but it was the 1-1 draw result that mattered. Hapoel has beaten Salzburg in Austria the prior week 3-2, so all they had to do was win, draw or lose 1-0 or 2-1 to make it to the next round.

Sounds pretty easy, no? Well, that was before arguably their best player Itay Schecter was injured in a League game over the weekend and did not play. In most cases Schecter is the glue that keeps the team together.

On top of that, coach Eli Gutman totally lost control after his side lost to Hapoel Haifa 1-0 Saturday evening. He berated players, yelled at management and cursed himself out for having allowed Schecter to play.

There were all kinds of signs that this match against the Austrians was one that they would fall apart and crash out of Europe. But they didn’t. And they have to thank the 12th man for not allowing that to happen.

The 12th man of course were the fans in the stadium who willed their team to victory.

Hapoel looked like a team that was waiting to be beaten. A team that looked so lost in the middle of the 2nd half already down 1-0 on a poorly played ball by goalkeeper Vincent Enyema. A team that as I said to the person in front of me were playing a perfect game in order to lose. He couldn’t have agreed with me more.

Their passes were not strung together, their attacks were putrid and their play was very sluggish in the Tel Aviv summer humidity.

But then it happened.

Gutman made a couple of good substitutions and took out a couple of players who were playing well over their heads in Romain Rocchi and Victor Maree’ and replaced them with Shay Abutbul and Bevan Fransman.

This coupled with the sudden emergence of the fans around the 75th minute helped will Hapoel to victory.

It was quite amazing to see how the fans in red dominated the last quarter of the match singing and screaming out with all they had to push their team to the Champions League.

One thing about Bloomfield Stadium is that when it’s packed the atmosphere is amazing and a true place of fear for the opposition. And that’s exactly what happened. Finally at the 90th minute Tel Aviv broke through and solidified the game with a Zehavi goal that broke the fans lose into pandemonium.

Without this encouragement it really looked like Hapoel was headed nowhere near the European giants, but the fans, yes the fans seemed to switch their gears and get them to the promised land.

Never underestimate the power of the 12th man.

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