Football in the Holy Land: 5,000 Miles from Heaven

James MontagueSpecial to Bleacher ReportMay 30, 2017

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Bleacher Report's James Montague travelled to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza to explore football's power to unite and understand the politics at play for those in love with the beautiful game there.

             

Part One

HERZLIYA, Israel — Shemer Goldschmidt flipped the cap of his silver, Liverpool FC-embossed hip flask and took a large slug of Chivas Regal scotch whisky. "I bought it at Anfield two months ago," Shemer said. "The best £15 I've ever spent."

Members of Israel's Official Liverpool FC Supporters Club were watching their team take on Manchester United. Liverpool were winning 1-0, and a chant went up in accented English: "Oh Manchester, is full of s--t. Oh Man-ches-ter is full of s--t..."

Close to a hundred of them were crammed into a sports bar, just a short walk from the Mediterranean Sea. Some were wearing kippahs (caps worn by observant Jewish men). Others had scarves bearing the face of Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp, or with "Never Walk Alone" stitched on in Hebrew script.

Goldschmidt wasn't hiding his nips of whisky. The bar is not certified kosher, but Chivas Regal is. As a religiously observant Jew, he's allowed to bring his own kosher alcohol to the match.

Shemer Goldschmidt (left) with a fellow member of Israel's Liverpool Supporters Club
Shemer Goldschmidt (left) with a fellow member of Israel's Liverpool Supporters ClubJames Montague

I asked why he began supporting Liverpool, a club with a working class, left-wing identity from the north-west of England, 5,000 miles and a world away.

"I'm not quite sure," he said. "When I was nine, 10 years old, my father was not into football at all, but I joined the club three years ago."

Nominally, Goldschmidt is a supporter of Beitar Jerusalem FC, a club famous for its ultra-nationalistic fanbase and refusal to field Arab players. "They are patriots," he explained. "Sometimes over-patriotic."

But in Liverpool FC, he has found a home. "It is this connection between a man and a football club," he said. "You can't explain it."

Across the world, on any given matchday, from Tokyo to Toronto, millions of people crowd into bars or coffee shops or public squares to watch the teams they love. They are not watching their local clubs, but rather Europe’s elite. Some deem them tourists. But there are tens of thousands of supporters clubs like these around the world, and their members are no less passionate than the fans who can walk or drive to the stadium.

It is these fans upon whom the game's global explosion is being built. With matchday ticket income no longer representing the biggest slice of revenue for top European clubs, TV deals, marketing, sponsorship and commercial deals have taken precedence. Liverpool detail over 200 supporters clubs from 50 countries on their website, as far afield as Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia and Freetown in Sierra Leone. Real Madrid list hundreds of fan clubs across the world.

Liverpool fan Tammy (far right)
Liverpool fan Tammy (far right)James Montague

Israel's Official Liverpool Supporters Club was started in 2005. It is now run by Tammy Alon, a young lawyer who fell in love with the Reds as a child and joined the group in 2010.

"I saw Michael Thomas score for Arsenal on that championship we lost on the 90th minute, and I remember Ian Rush and John Barnes crying," she said.

English football was harder to watch overseas back then. Occasional recordings of games picked up from neighbouring Jordanian TV sometimes played in Arabic.

"Ever since then, I thought I had a connection with the team. Now I am an adult, I can see my team play every week," Alon said.

Her supporters club has grown to have more than 3,000 members, made up of both Jews and Arabs, who make up 20 per cent of Israel's population. "At important games," Alon explained, "500 people come to this bar." More than 600 turned up for the game against Manchester City.

"Liverpool has a lot of Israeli ties because of Avi Cohen, Yossi Benayoun and Ronny Rosenthal," she said of the three Israel internationals who have played for Liverpool over the past four decades. "The connection has always been tight."

Yossi Benayoun during his time at Liverpool
Yossi Benayoun during his time at LiverpoolPAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

As we talked, Zlatan Ibrahimovic rose to power home a header to make it 1-1. Shemer slammed his hip flask on the table before the crowd started singing:

"We are Liverpool, la la la la.

"We are Liverpool, la, la-la-la-la."

Alon grew up supporting Maccabi Haifa, from Israel's north, but preferred watching Liverpool to going to local games. The standard of football was low, she said, and it was difficult being a woman at the games.

On several occasions her love of Liverpool has brought Alon to the attention of the authorities. She almost got serious jail time for watching perhaps Liverpool's greatest match in the modern era — the 2005 Champions League final comeback in Istanbul  whilst on national service.

She frequently visits Liverpool with her brother, an equally as diehard supporter. In 2011 the two flew to London before taking the night bus from Kings Cross ('the worst place I've seen at night,' she says). En route they were searched by immigration and drugs police after the coach was raided during a stop. The officers called for back up when she reached for her shoe. 'Being a paranoid Israeli,' she explains. 'I keep my passport down one of my socks.' After an hour of being questioning, explaining they were there to see Liverpool v Manchester United, they were sent on their way in the early hours and fell asleep in a city centre cafe.

“When we wake up the city centre is full of Liverpool supporters; flags, scarfs, fans cheering,” she says. “There was some magic optimism. You can be a Liverpool fan just being around it.” A Dirk Kuyt hat trick saw Liverpool win 3-1. “All I get in my head [during the match] was a comment my brother said when we were being searched: 'this better be worth it',” she recalls. “At the end of the match he was in tears.”

Steven Gerrard celebrates Liverpool's 2005 Champions League triumph in Istanbul
Steven Gerrard celebrates Liverpool's 2005 Champions League triumph in IstanbulGetty

The Liverpool-Manchester United game finished 1-1. As she has done for every season over the past 10 years, Tammy had bought tickets for the final game of the season, in the hope of seeing Liverpool lift the Premier League title. But with Chelsea set fair, she’ll have to wait another year at least.

The pub began to empty as the TV switched to the Israeli league. Tonight, Beitar Jerusalem take on Hapoel Haifa FC.

"Israeli football is not bad, but it is not good either," Avi Meller, one of the most famous football commentators in Israel, said. "We are a young country, 68 years old, and we have done quite a lot in this time."

Traditionally, Israeli football clubs were often extensions of political parties, their allegiance signaled by their prefix. "Hapoel" means "worker" in Hebrew, indicating that the club's roots were in Israel's left-wing union movement; Maccabi teams are considered to represent the wealthy establishment elite, while Beitar clubs often had more right-wing, poor, anti-establishment roots.

Israeli teams play in UEFA (European) competition as a result of politics. Arab countries refused to play the Israeli national team nor its club sides in Asian competition, meaning that the Israeli Football Association led a nomadic existence, until finally finding a home in UEFA in 1994.

Maccabi Haifa, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Tel Aviv have qualified for the Champions League group stage five times between them since 2002. But this is a different era. Take the goings-on at Hapoel Tel Aviv, one of Israel's biggest teams, who were in the group stages of the Champions League seven years ago. The club has effectively gone bankrupt. The IFA docked the team nine points, sending them to the bottom of the league and in danger of disappearing completely.

Hapoel Tel Aviv fans in London celebrate knocking Chelsea out of the 2001-02 UEFA Cup
Hapoel Tel Aviv fans in London celebrate knocking Chelsea out of the 2001-02 UEFA CupGetty

"We have nine channels, see all the matches from every Premier League round. You can't do that in England," Meller said. "We can. So there is fierce competition. We live and sleep and eat and die by football."

Meller is an Anglophile. He moved to England in 1974, eventually covering the English game for Israeli newspaper Maariv. Back then, it was hard covering the game for foreign newspapers. Most clubs saw no need to accommodate them.

"Ken Bates of Chelsea kicked me out. He said, 'I don't want foreign journalists. They don't help me in any way.'"

Watford were more forward-looking and gave Meller a press pass.

"They were runners-up in the 1984 FA Cup," he said fondly. "I was the only journalist in the press box crying when we lost to Everton 2-0."

Meller got lost in the memories of following Watford all the way down to the fourth division.

"They went on the tour of the leagues," he said, before leaving to go back to work. "It was the greatest tour on earth. Strawberry fields forever!"

The pub emptied as the Beitar game began. Even Shemer didn't hang around for it.

           

James Montague is a contributing feature writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @JamesPiotr

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