Spring training, preseason, practice or however you want to call it, last night’s Toto Cup derby match between Hapoel Tel Aviv & Maccabi Tel Aviv had the atmosphere of a regular season Ligat Ha’Al derby. After a long summer of Hamas missile attacks on Israel & the IDF operation Protective Edge in and around the Gaza Strip both of the team’s supporters, players and media members were more than happy to be back at Bloomfield Stadium watching and analyzing the beginning of a new season.
While we’re on the subject of new beginnings it was exactly 10 years ago that I picked myself up with two boys ages 4 & 8 months (my wife had come 3 weeks earlier by herself as she needed to begin work) and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to start our new life in Israel.
Who knew that 10 years later I would be sitting in the press box as a member of the media covering the Israel Football League for my website FootballIsrael.com. If you would have asked me then, I would’ve thought it was a crazy thought one that would never happen in a billion years, but yet here I am living the dream. Living the dream of not only residing in The State of Israel but also the dream of being part of the fabric of Israeli society with people who grew up watching, cheering & rooting for their favourite teams, just as I did in Montreal with the Canadiens & Expos.
My children are now growing up following Israeli sports from football to basketball, from tennis and more, devouring the Yediot Acharonot newspaper sports section at breakfast each morning before heading to school, to watching the sports news and surfing the web trying to find out the latest bits of relevant information.
They collect football stickers of their heroes just as I did with baseball & hockey cards. They get their hands on the latest Goal! or Match! Magazine, clipping the posters and hanging their stars all over their walls, just as I once did. Everything is the same yet everything is so different.
Just as the players were rough around the edges on the pitch, missing open goals, not being able to make the crisp passes as they would mid-season, but it was a start, a new beginning one which had been longed for over the last few difficult months.
Before the match began Hapoel Tel Aviv honored four fallen soldiers who had been supporters of the club. As I sat in the press box, just below me was a teenager holding a jersey framed with his late brother’s name on it. A reminder that life is too fragile, life can take many turns, for the better or for the worse.
The realities in Israel are so much different than they are where I grew up in North America. Our country lives under constant threat from it’s not so friendly neighbors. Our children will serve in the army proudly defending our country, the only one we have. We have no choice.
We fight to live, whereas our enemies live to fight, that is the fundamental difference.
But children filled the stands, as singing continued throughout the 90+ minutes. The mood was a festive one with new Maccabi coach Pako Ayestaran manning the sidelines for the league champions whom had just been eliminated from European competition.
Lots of chances for both sides littered the first half of play as Maccabi came out of the gate very strong but Hapoel controlled the last 15 minutes or so of the half. It was clear that the players were still getting into playing shape as the near misses will be put into the back of the goal later on in the season. The second half saw more end to end action with Tal Ben Haim finally breaking the deadlock and scoring a magnificent goal to put the visitors up 1-0. And that’s when the fun started.
The Reds embattled ‘keeper Dani Amos picked up a foolish red card after the goal for pushing & shoving a Maccabi player and headed for the showers bringing in second choice Tom Almondon and reducing Hapoel to ten men.
More opportunities for both sides kept coming but in the end Maccabi picked up the Toto Cup victory with a close 1-0 win that sent all the fans home happy. Yes even the losing side Hapoel’s supporters left upbeat, knowing that in truth they had won too.
At the postgame press conference new Maccabi boss Pako Ayestaran was asked what he was able to take from the match and he clearly said, “The best thing we can take out of this game is the atmosphere.”
Football had won. Football was back.