"Nice," was how a Serbian sports reporter summarized the crowd at Thursday's battle at Nokia Arena in which Maccabi Tel Aviv tied its Euroleague quarterfinal series 1-1 with Partizan Belgrade. "It's a good crowd - probably the second-best in Europe," he said. Which fans take the top spot? In Serbia, that's a no-brainer.
"You have no idea what awaits Maccabi in Belgrade. In terms of the decibel level, I'd say it's 25-to-one louder than in Tel Aviv," he said.
"Maccabi Tel Aviv received a huge reprieve the moment the game was transferred from Pionir Hall to the Belgrade Arena," said a Russian journalist of tomorrow's third contest in the five-game series. "Partizan fans are completely and utterly crazy, but there's a difference between their permanent home and the Arena, where they only play two or three times a year."
Of Pionir Hall, he said, "Imagine 8,000 fanatics in an arena filled with cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke, and hundreds of police officers dressed like Robocop separating them from the parquet. The cops' presence just irritates the fans, and the aggressive ones among them - who usually show up shirtless - do anything to provoke them," he says. "It's a real nightmare for the opponents."
Maccabi, however, also has good memories from Pionir, where it won its first-ever European championship in 1977, prompting Tal Brody's famous remark about Maccabi, and Israel, being "on the map."
The Belgrade Arena may hold three times as many spectators as Pioneer, but in the eyes of the Serbian reporter, it is nonetheless a far less stressful environment for any visiting team. "From a financial standpoint, selling 30,000 more tickets - 15,000 at Games 3 and 4 respectively - at 15 to 20 euros apiece is no small matter for a low-budget team like Partizan. Plus, the team's management simply had to move to accommodate all the fans."
If anyone on Maccabi can expect a warm welcome in the Serbian capital, it's Gabonese big man Stephane Lasme, a former Partizan player. Guard Andrew Wisniewski will receive a markedly colder reception, having once played for city rival Red Star Belgrade. Both Belgrade clubs share a home at Pionir, but sharing fans is another matter altogether.
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