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My Other Team, Part 2

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Part two of a long form exploration of foreign soccer through the eyes of a dedicated Rapids fan.

Ramat Gan, formerly Israel's national stadium, and the current home stand of second division Hapoel Ramat Gan.
Ramat Gan, formerly Israel's national stadium, and the current home stand of second division Hapoel Ramat Gan.

This is part 2 of a Burgundy Wave Long Form from Rapids Rabbi.

For part 1, click here.


If Beitar, my former club, is Israel's club with the most right wing, most retrograde fan base, then Hapoel Katamon is the anti-Beitar. How are they on race? They run an integrated Arab-Jewish youth league that teaches tolerance and co-existence alongside slide tackles and backheels, with over 1,000 participating youths. Gender? Katamon's youth girls teams are promoted equally to the boys, and they win too. Tolerance? During Jerusalem's Gay Pride festival, they replace their corner flags with rainbow flags. Corporate governance? Hapoel Katamon is a fan-owned and run club - anyone can have a voting stake in the team for around $350.

That came about very intentionally: Katamon was founded as a split-off from the original club, Hapoel Jerusalem. The owner of the Jerusalem club, Jerusalem's first soccer team that goes back to 1926, had stopped investing in the team, allowing it to languish hopelessly in the second division. Fans revolted by starting their own club, at the very bottom of the Israeli soccer pyramids, in the fifth division, and have clawed their way up to Israel's second tier, the ‘Ligat Leumit', or ‘National League'. On top of all of that their fans are absolutely bonkers for the club. They've been tops in their division for attendance for at least the past three years.


So a tolerant, forward-thinking, fan-friendly, underdog team with rabid fans? Sign me up, I said. My first game in person was last year, and I wrote this.


It was so energizing, I came home with a new found love for supporter culture and for soccer. And I had pretty much picked a new team, albeit one that, at the time, was still only in Israel's third division, with a roster led by two former Israeli premier players at the sunset of their careers, out for one last spin on the pitch. Think Lampard and Pirlo - but with a little more heart, and a lot less talent. One of them, Aviram Baruchyan, had a 10 year career with Beitar Jerusalem and scored 37 goals before coming to Hapoel Katamon. He and the other experienced journeymen were surrounded by some youngsters, some decent semi-pro level players, and a rabid fan base. Katamon finished the 2014-15 season as champions of Ligat Aleph, and were promoted, starting 2015 in Israel's second tier, with dreams of going up to Ligat Ha Al, the Premier League.


The half-kilometer walk to the Ramat Gan Stadium passes through a public park alongside the Yarkon River, a little stream of street runoff that doctors don't advise one come into physical contact with. Israeli families are winding up a full days' holiday celebrations: Israeli men grilling skewered meats on cheap aluminum grills during this fourth day of the seven day national holiday of Passover. I am hurrying a little, since I underestimated the travel time a bit. A trip I expected would take an hour has taken nearly two hours, with the bus being late, hitting traffic, and making a gazillion stops to let off passengers. Kickoff is minutes away.

I arrive at the gate full of anticipation. The guard asks if I have a gun, a standard question in Israel. I do not. He asks if I have a ticket. I do not. I ask where to get one. He says ‘The kuppah (box office)'. I ask where. He says ‘There', and points off unhelpfully somewhere south. Kickoff is two minutes away.


I run to the ticket stand 200 meters away. All ten windows are closed. I continue on running, thinking, maybe its the next one. There's another box office. I approach. It is empty. At this point, I'm on the opposite side of the stadium from the only entrance. I can hear kickoff through the gaps in the south stand. I can hear the Ohadim - the fans - chanting and banging their drums. I'm panicking a little. I sprint all the way back and ask a fan in red where to buy a ticket. He tells me: the parking lot. Of the bus station. In a non-descript white building I had passed three times. Because I assumed it sold, you know, bus tickets. Silly me. I get my cartis - ticket - and a bag of sunflower seeds. Because all Israelis eat sunflower seeds at football matches. When in Rome...


I enter the stark unadorned concrete corridor of the stadium and emerge to the bright lights flooding the pitch. Fans fill about eight sections of the west stand, making up maybe two or three thousand, total. The home and away sides are almost equally represented with fans. The last time I saw Katamon, at home, the away fans from Ironi Neve Tzedek could be counted on two hands. Suffice it to say that Katamon's travelling fan culture is strong.


I sit on the Katamon side, although both teams fans sport red kits and scarfs. With the adrenaline still pulsing from 10 minutes of sprinting around the parking lot, it takes me a while to settle down and figure out what I'm looking at. One team is in white, and the other in red. For the first ten minutes, I can't tell which team I'm supposed to root for. This is what happens when you root for a team that has never appeared on television, and who's home field is a nine thousand mile drive from your house. Eventually from the groans of the crowd in my section at a series of missed shots, I figure out that Katamon is in white.


It's week 33 in the Israeli second division. For the first 30 weeks of the season, the sixteen teams of the league have all player each other, home and away. The ‘playoffs' begin at week 31: the top eight and bottom eight teams are split. The top eight teams will play for promotion - one game against the other promotion-table teams. At the end of week 37, the top two will be promoted to the Premier League. The bottom eight teams face off in a relegation playoff against each other. The bottom two teams will drop through the trap door into Ligat Aleph, a division filled with amateurs and semi-pros. Ligat Aleph is filled with the local equivalent of YMCA teams that have overachieved. Uneven pitches with dandelions and sand. A division of clubs barely staving off bankruptcy.

Katamon and Ramat Gan have achieved the solace of knowing they've made the promotion playoff. Neither will be going back down to Ligat Aleph. One, or both of them, could be going up next season to play in Ligat Ha'Al, the premiership. That would mean playing in brand new stadiums packed with 20,000 fans; playing for your whole family on national television, against Israeli internationals like Eran Zahavi, the national team striker with 30 goals for Maccabi Tel Aviv, and Sheiran Yeini, Hapoel Beer Sheva's dominant holding mid for nearly the past decade. And Yossi Benayoun and Tal Ben Haim, two former English Premier League players who are the pride of this tiny Mediterranean nation.

Like every league with promotion and relegation, going up to the top flight is a thrill. Going up after starting in the fifth division; going up with a bespoke team put together with the individual donations of a few thousand fans forking over $350 a piece to be part of the big time is a dream beyond parallel. But Israel itself is a nation of dreams. The idea for the modern state, reborn from the ashes of the Davidic monarchy of 1000 BCE that was wiped out by the Romans in 70 CE, sprang from the brain of an Austrian Jew, Theodor Herzl, in 1897. Herzl's most famous phrase: "Im tirzu, ain zo aggadah - If you will it, it is no dream."

Back on the pitch, things start out kind of rocky. Ramat Gan have all the possession and are coming forward in attack, one possession after another, like waves crashing on a beach. Katamon's defensive unit fends things off ably. At first I though the team was playing a five-man back line, but it turned out that the defense was so taxed, one of the d-mids was simply dropping right into the middle of the back line time and time again in desperate attempts to stop the Ramat Gan attack. Katamon broke the pressure and made a nice little run for a shot at around the 30 minute mark. The right side stinger whistles high. Katamon concedes its first goal shortly thereafter, on nice pass and poach at around 35'. The play was a little bit more even for the next ten minutes, but Katamon went into the half down 1-0.

...

Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem fans, supporting their team on the road early in the first half.

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More action from the Israeli Second Division, known as 'Ligat Leumit', the 'National League'.

...


At 38 minutes before the half, the supporters all raise their index fingers in the air, and the stadium is almost silent for 30 seconds.


A bald, 30-something man begins to bellow something in Hebrew I can't make out. The fans scream back in unison 'Ohley ohley ohley'. He screams something again. Fans respond 'ohley ohley ohley' this takes place four or five times, until he bellows a deep and mightly full-throated scream from the depths of his soul that reverberates across the pitch and echoes against the walls of the empty east stand. The Katamon fans begin to jump up and down and chant 'Mi she'lo kofetz, ohev Beitar' - 'If you aren't jumping, you love Beitar'; and 'Mi She'lo Kofetz Tzahoooov!' - 'If you aren't jumping, you're a yellow (Beitar's color). The Katamon fans scream themselves into a frenzy until the referee blows the whistle for the half.

'If you aren't jumping, you're for Beitar!'

...


Katamon came out swinging at the half, aggressively pushing the fullbacks up the flanks. Their number 9 , an Argentine named Matias Martin, came back to the ball and dribbled with skill on the net, but the Ramat Gan keeper stymied him three times in the opening 20 minutes. Finally, all the pressure applied from the fullbacks... backfired. Ramat Gan won a ball back in midfield with their central midfielder, number 25, a towering Nigeria named Michael Tukura with a throwback haircut; a faded hightop. He cuts it out wide to a streaking right winger, 26, a short little fellow with whirring legs like an Israeli Joao Plata. Katamon's left back is still streaking back from his offensive duties, and 26 is completely unmarked. 26 slots home number two for Ramat Gan at minute 63'. Hapoel Katamon is now back-to-the-wall.


Katamon's supporters group, Brigade Malcha, named for the neighborhood of their home stadium, realize the urgency. The drums strike a fevered pitch. The voices get louder. The fans strike up their favorite song...

...

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The words, HT to Hapoel manager and super supporter Daphne Goldschmidt ( @daphss ):

...


...


...

(English from me)

I sit and count the minutes

For the game I wait

I warm up my throat

Like a tonic for a man with a sickness

I need this like hard drugs

I am addicted only to you

I'm always in need of a higher dose

/

Oh oh oh Hapoel, Hapoel

Ole ole ole hu

...


For the next eight minutes, Hapoel throws seven men forward - all but the center backs and a d-mid, desperately trying to claw back into the game. The result is two ill advised long shots that are way off frame, and one well intentioned but poorly struck ball that dribbles meekly into the keepers mitts. At just past 70', Ramat Gan catches the left back out of position again and threads 26 another perfect pass. He sends a ground cross back into the box, where Ramat Gan's striker stabs it home. Three - nil, Ramat Gan.


The Katamon fans, unbowed, begin cheering even louder, willing the team to show the kind of fight they themselves exemplify. It is to no avail. The Hapoel Katamon midfield is in disarray. The back line is squabbling. The team knows defeat is imminent, and they look spent. Katamon concedes a fourth goal to Ramat Gan at the 85th minute, a carbon copy of the third goal, right wing to central striker, who walks it into the net this time. The Ohadim, the fans, contrary to logic or belief, get louder yet again. With their team down four to nil. Virtually the entire away stands are on their feet, chanting and singing with gusto. On 90 minutes, with the game in the bag and the Katamon players tracking listlessly, a late sub for Ramat Gan rips through the midfield, jukes a defender, cuts in from the left corner of the 18 yard box, and chips the beleaguered Katamon keeper perfectly into the far right corner of the net. A few pissed-off Katamon players take issue and some shoving and yelling ensues. The senior referee blows his whistle. Ramat Gan has pasted Hapoel Katamon, 5-0. The game was closer than it'll look in tomorrow's paper, in a tiny box at the bottom of one of Israel's major dailies, but both the loss and the margin make it much more unlikely than before that Hapoel will not be going up this season. That will mean another year in the second tier.


The fans don't seem to care. As I make my way our of the stadium for the long ride home, they stay to cheer every last player, and then begin cheering again even with the whole team in the locker room - five hundred fans left behind, cheering loudly for their team, for each other, after a total shellacking on the road that probably ends their promotion hopes.


They will return each game, and again in September when the new season starts, to chant their favorite chant: ‘Oh/ Hapoel Oleh/ Hapoel Oleh, Hapoel Oleh, Hapoel Oleh' - Hapoel is going up. It is going up. Maybe not this year. But certainly, something good is rising on the south side of Jerusalem. I'm glad I'm somehow a part of it, even from nine thousand miles away.