Soccer Small-time Losers Are Back in Town

Nitzan Horesh
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Nitzan Horesh

For a soccer club like Hapoel Jerusalem, its political-ideological posture is not the usual luxury of some trendy lefties and old-time socialists in their city cafes. It's a way of life and an intrinsic part of the club's very existence.

This is clear in the current climate of a city that has lurched more and more to the right, and in which the small, committed left-wing population needs a club to identify with in the face of Betar, the bastion of the right.

It wasn't always this way. From 1957 to 1968 Hapoel Jerusalem was the club that represented the city in the top division of local soccer. Until 20 years ago, the club's phalanx of supporters were easily a match for their noisy Betar rivals. But the evolutionary change in Jerusalem has seen the demise of the Labor movement and the local workers' council - the main backer of Hapoel - leaving the club teetering on the brink of extinction.

Playing in the shadows

Betar meanwhile became "the club of the nation," and support for this bastion of the right wing stretched well beyond the borders of Jerusalem, leaving it to take over hegemony of the capital.

Hapoel also sold off its Katamon ground for redevelopment in the late 1970s, and the unique identity of the club suffered badly when it had to play on its hated arch-rival's turf at the YMCA, and later at Teddy Stadium. It did not suffer so badly that it changed its image as an outfit which is used to hard times, a club with a defensive approach to play, lacking flamboyance, and with an aura of being "losers."

Seven seasons ago it appeared all indeed was doom and gloom. Hapoel was one of those clubs mostly found splashing in the dregs of the standings - always battling to avoid relegation, trailing few clouds of glory, its dusty club-house trophy cabinet sporting few trophies. As conditions worsened, Hapoel started slipping out of view until it landed with a bump in the third division last season.

Now it's back in the second division, after promotion from the third division back to respectability - hopefully with some brighter prospects for the future. As the labor organizations shed the luxury of supporting sports clubs, Hapoel Jerusalem went into administration with lawyer Ami Folman (who earlier this season was involved in overseeing a similar situation at Betar). He took the reins and tried to find a buyer for the club. Nobody wanted to take on Hapoel, but buyers were indeed found - building contractors Yossi Sassi and Victor Yona.

Costly venture

They had no idea what lay in store, but they decided to take a great risk by appointing two coaches - Uri Malmillian and Yossi Mizrahi - both strongly identified with the arch-rivals Betar. It took only a season for the duo to take the club from the second division to the top flight with an injection of funds. Once they had made it back to the top division, Sassi and Yona announced that they would not be spending as much money on the club as it would need to keep up with the big clubs.

"You could say from that point Sassi and Yona endeavored as best they could do do the least possible for the club," said Haim Baram, a journalist and long-time supporter. Malmillian took the hint and walked out, leaving Mizrahi to fight against relegation in the age of privatization, as other clubs invested heavily in players.

Mizrahi had three heroic seasons at Hapoel during which he managed to keep the club with the big boys, avoiding the drop in each. And when you consider that the club's star players were the dour journeymen Shlomi Danino and Amir Gola, things fall into perspective. Mizrahi managed to squeeze every last drop of talent out of his players, like water from a stone.

The club reached an erstwhile peak in 1997 when Jerusalem made the State Cup final and 8,000 supporters descended on the National Stadium for what they hoped would be a repeat of the club's all-time high when it won the cup in 1973. This time Jerusalem was a clear underdog and succumbed to Maccabi Haifa as expected, but the loss did not dispel the supporters' belief that Hapoel would see brighter times ahead.

Success breeds failure

Sassi and Yona had other ideas, however, and clearly saw the club as a financial burden. Their less than committed management had the fans doubting their sincerity. Sassi would hum and haw in reply to questions from the media, and at one point even had the audacity to say that in the 1980s he had taken Betar to heart "because they began to show success." There could not have been a more reprehensible comment to fall on the ears of Hapoel fans.

As for Yona, there were plenty of witness accounts of how he liked to practice his karate on the furniture of the club locker room. Not surprisingly, the bosses' attitude heralded more hard times for the club.

At the end of the next season Mizrahi walked out on the club when Sassi and Yona refused to pay him an outstanding debt of $10,000. The coach told his bosses: "The money you are denying my daughter now will cost you much more dearly in the future."

Sassi and Yona had little regard for Mizrahi's success and next they appointed Michel Dayan, who for many years was the club's outstanding player, captain and leader. He retired shortly before the 1997 cup final and was promised the job of coach after his playing days ended.

New era

When announcing Dayan's appointment, Yona broke into tears of joy. "A dream has come true, Michel is the coach of Hapoel," he said. Dayan himself said that there was new dawn at Hapoel. "Trying to avoid relegation is a contemptible target for us," he said.

The club went into free fall. At the end of the season Hapoel was relegated, and a season later it was relegated again. Hard times had befallen the club and Yona, unable to take the criticism from his fans lashed out at them in public on several occasions.

In one infamous incident he was shown climbing a fence and shouting at the fans "I piss on you before spitting at them." It was hardly the stuff of a dignified soccer manager - it was so extreme, even for the Israeli scene, that it couldn't even be brushed off as "colorful."

The die-hard fans - 2,000-3,000 - nevertheless weathered the hard times while the rest of the 18,000 seats lay bare and empty at Teddy Stadium. Sassi and Yona were meanwhile more interested in promoting the new pub they opened in Eilat.

But this season, after reaching an all-time low water mark, Hapoel Jerusalem stabilized. It may only have been the third division, but the winning began to return and the attendances doubled. As many as 5,000-6,000 fans would show up on Friday afternoons to see the club play - and more often than not - actually win.

At the official third division championship celebrations at Teddy Stadium 10 days ago, there were boos and whistles for Sassi when his name was mentioned over the PA system. But it is still too early to say if this is a new dawn for Hapoel Jerusalem - or just another footnote to its history.



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