With local club Hapoel lurching from crisis to embarrassment, left-leaning fans in the Israeli capital had had enough. Shaul Adar reports on their decision to start again after failing in a takeover bid
In May, Uri Sheradsky, the sports editor for a Jerusalem local paper, wrote a column in the weekly edition. There was only one subject on his mind. While Beitar Jerusalem won their first championship for nine years, his team, Hapoel Jerusalem, were dropping down limply to the third division for the first time.
Hapoel have long been in decline, but have plumbed new depths of late. On the first day of the season, fans couldn’t get into the stadium after one of the owners left his daughter to take control of the entire stadium’s security on her own. With no qualified stewards at hand the police wouldn’t allow any fans in, though the game still took place. The relegation was sealed by humiliating and suspicious defeats to other teams near the bottom of the table.
After his son asked him why he has to support such a team, Sheradsky called on his fellow fans to unite and to buy Hapoel from their incompetent owners. Victor Yona and Yossi Sassi had become a laughing stock in recent times, selling star players for ludicrously small sums and one of them even blurting out that he was actually a Beitar fan. Sheradsky wrote that a revamped club could be run along the lines of Barcelona, with fans as shareholders.
The newspaper column was mainly an opportunity for Sheradsky to let off steam, but he received emails from all over Israel and abroad from other suffering Hapoel fans and decided to give his embryonic idea a go. The primary target was to raise 1,000,000 NIS (£120,000), thought to be enough to buy the debt-ridden club. Soon, however, it became clear Hapoel were not for sale. In recent years, the owners’ energies have mostly been concentrated on court battles against one another and the local press, but now they decided to resist the takeover.
The alternative was to acquire a fourth-tier Hapoel team from the city suburbs and add the name Katamon (the name of Hapoel Jerusalem’s old stadium). The inspiration came from AFC Wimbledon and FC United, whose stories had caught the imagination of many. With unprecedented national media coverage for a team playing in a semi-professional, almost amateur, regional league, enough shares were sold and Hapoel Katamon start playing next month.
Apart from buffoonish management, the decline of Hapoel Jerusalem reflects the story of Israel’s capital. A city that had been under Labour Party control for decades, it has become a bastion of fanaticism with a local population increasingly turning to religious orthodoxy. Beitar used to be the sport section of the right-wing Likud Party and their supporters regularly chant anti-Arab slogans – they are also opposed to the team buying Muslim players from other countries. Hapoel means “The Worker” and all teams bearing that name were once funded by the Labour Party and the main trade union organisation, Histradut, though all have since gone into private ownership. Hapoel clubs from five different cities have been champions, though the Jerusalem club, who had a long tradition of signing Arab players, have only ever won the cup.
Beitar had become a nationally popular club – half the government went to matches when Benyamin Netanyahu was prime minister. They won their first league title in 1987, then three more in the 1990s before going into a long slump caused, some believed, by a seven-year curse imposed by a kabala rabbi. But two years the club were bought by Arkady Gaydamak, father of Alexandre, owner of Portsmouth. The gap between them and Hapoel widened.
Next year there’s the possibility of a local derby between the two Hapoels, although Katamon’s founders are still hoping that the Jerusalem team will finally fold due to debts and they will reclaim the name. Any such game will be a strange event for the fans who divorced their own club and formed a rival entity. “It is not Hapoel Jerusalem any more,” Sheradsky says. “Revenge is important for us. We will enjoy the day.”
From WSC 248 October 2007