Sports Nut

The Intifada All-Stars

The upside of violence in Israel? Better soccer.

Hapoel Tel Aviv players

Forget Cameron Indoor. At the moment, there’s no more imposing home field in the world than Bloomfield Stadium, the 17,000-seat residence of the Israeli soccer club Hapoel Tel Aviv. As the Israelis compete for the UEFA Cup—one of the two great European championships—opposing players have concocted all sorts of excuses to avoid the place.

Take the London powerhouse Chelsea, which visited Bloomfield last October. The team’s notoriously hard-nosed captain, Marcel Desailly, skipped the trip. He told reporters that a dental infection had spread to his Achilles’ tendon—a difficult condition to imagine and an excuse undermined by his own coach’s announcement that he had planned on skipping Tel Aviv even before his “injury.” His teammate midfielder Emmanuel Petit also refused to go, claiming the need to nurse his bruised and beaten body. On the day before the match, however, tabloid photographers spotted Petit happily shopping with his wife in Central London. In all, six of Chelsea’s best players finked out. The team that did show up, comprised mostly of second-stringers and unripened teen-agers, lost to Hapoel by two goals.

Traveling among the soccer thugs, it’s not uncommon for visiting teams to fear for their lives. But no squad in history has improved quite so much thanks to the fear of violence. Although they’re not even the dominant team in Israel, Hapoel won home matches against a raft of much richer, more storied Europeanclubs this season. After miraculously beating Italy’s A.C. Milan last week, they’re a game away from the UEFA Cup semifinals.

Sadly, the European soccer federation has decided to strip Hapoel of its advantage. It insisted that last Thursday’s home game against Milan be moved to Nicosia, Cyprus. And it has banned all international soccer matches in Israel until the violence ends. After the announcement, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon phoned Italian President Silvio Berlusconi (who also happens to be the president of A.C. Milan) begging him to send his team to Tel Aviv—a new twist on the right of return. While Berlusconi spewed homilies about Italy’s friendship with the Jewish state, he declined to move the match. (It wasn’t exactly a disinterested piece of policy. A victory against Hapoel, advancing Milan to the next round, would earn Berlusconi and his team millions of dollars in TV revenue.)

It’s startling to see Sharon promote Hapoel. Before the current run, the team was as divisive as Peace Now, despised by all good Likudniks. Founded by trade unionists in the 1920s, for most of its history Hapoel made no secret of its ties to Israel’s Labor Party. A hammer and sickle continues to grace the team’s red uniforms. Even though its new owners have tried to extend its fan base by depoliticizing Hapoel, it continues to draw the same old Labor fans—urban, yuppie Ashkenazis and Israeli Arabs.

Hapoel’s newfound home-field advantage might sound a tad unfair. But it’s the least the soccer world could do for Israel. Because Muslim states refuse to play them, Israel’s national team was removed from the relatively weak Asian qualifying groups for the World Cup. Instead, the international soccer federation forces them to compete against European nations, usually the world’s strongest. As a result, Israel hasn’t qualified for a World Cup since 1970.

And there are many other obstacles to the success of Israeli soccer. Players in their prime serve stints in the army. Foreign talent increasingly turn down offers to play for the Israeli clubs. Hapoel’s star, the Slovenian striker Milan Osterc, has already announced that he has no intention of returning to Israel after the season. He says that he’d rather go to the less stressful confines of England or Italy. Triumphing against the odds, however, Hapoel has turned into a national symbol. On the day of the Milan win, newspapers subjugated the violence beneath the fold. “A Miracle,” one headline blared. When Sharon learned of last week’s victory, he reportedly interrupted a meeting with the U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni to gloat, “We beat Italy!” The cycle of violence may continue, but at least the cycle of losing is over.