Maccabi Haifa, having disposed of FC Haka, were set for a lucrative tie with Liverpool – that is until they were found guilty of fielding an ineligable player. Shaul Adar discusses the fallout
It was one of the most unfortunate appearances in the history of European club football. Maccabi Haifa held a 1-0 lead from the away leg of their Champions League second qualifying round tie against FC Haka of Finland. For the return, won 4-0 in Haifa, they recalled ex-Wimbledon midfielder Walid Badir who had been suspended. During the game Badir broke his cheekbone and was taken to hospital. A few hours after he’d undergone an operation, the news broke: Badir was supposed to serve a two-game suspension and so had been ineligible. Haifa were disqualified and duly lost about £2 million they would have earned from meeting Liverpool in the next round.
A survey done by Shem Hamisehak, Israel’s leading sports magazine, revealed that Liverpool are the second most popular foreign team in Israel (the first also comes from the north-west of England), and would have attracted as many fans to the match as Maccabi. One of the most passionate Liverpool fans in Israel is Abraham Grant, Haifa’s manager, who has been known to make trips to Anfield during Israel’s winter break. “There’s no one more frustrated then me,” he said. “My life’s ambition was to visit Liverpool as a coach”.
The prospect of an even match in the home leg – Haifa have defeated Paris St Germain, Parma and Torpedo Moscow in recent years – made the game into the major event in a very hot, bloody and sad summer in Israel.
The reaction to Haifa’s disqualification was venomous. A few accused UEFA of blatant anti-Semitism, others, encouraged by Maccabi Haifa, tried to blame the Israeli FA. “It is so Israeli,” wrote the papers and for a change they got it right. In Israel, it is said, rules are for suckers, especially if you are Maccabi Haifa, the most powerful team in the land. A few years ago when a salary cap was imposed in the Israeli league, two clubs applied to sign new players in mid-season. Only Haifa received permission. Last year they played with one foreign player more than was allowed after the FA adapted the rules.
Last May, when the fans celebrated the club’s first championship in seven years and tried to get on to the pitch, 30 spectators were injured in the crush. Two were saved by emergency resuscitation and one is still in a coma. Maccabi Haifa were ordered to play four matches away from their shabby stadium, but after they threatened to boycott the league the ban was reduced to one game.
Spoilt by such favouritism, the club’s directors believed they had a chance of overturning UEFA’s ruling and went to Geneva with an English lawyer and Gavri Levi, chairman of the Israeli FA, who had agreed to take the blame. Nothing helped and Haifa were out. “We brought pride back to Israeli football,” claimed Levi. A few days later it emerged that Haifa had received a fax from UEFA on the day of the match clearly stating that Badir was suspended. “Those anti-Semites at UEFA sent it in English and not in Hebrew,” mocked the fans of Hapoel Haifa and Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Soon fans came up with their own explanation: there is a curse on Maccabi Haifa. It started with the match that should have sealed last championship, which they lost. Next they were defeated in the local derby by Hapoel Haifa and then the championship celebrations were marred by tragedy.
And then when it seemed that it couldn’t get more pathetic, one of the Israeli tabloids published some startling news: “Maccabi Haifa have heard rumours that Liverpool made great efforts to avoid coming to Israel even before the Badir case. According to these rumours the English team was afraid due to the situation in the region. Some people in Haifa claim that Liverpool are responsible for the whole affair…” “We will be happy if Haka get a good result against them,” those same “people” added. Needless to say, that vain hope was also frustrated.
From WSC 176 October 2001. What was happening this month