Soccer / Netanya Opens State-of-art Stadium With a Pedestrian Win

Underacheiving Hapoel Tel Aviv disappoints again.

It was hardly a classic game to open its new stadium, but Maccabi Netanya will be satisfied with last night's 2-1 victory over Hapoel Tel Aviv through goals by its captain Achmad Saba'a and Ali El-Khatib.

Before the game, Netanya Mayor Miriam Feirberg cut the ribbon to formally inaugurate the gleaming new 13,800-capacity municipal stadium, which according to its developers boasts state-of-the-art amenities, VIP boxes and security-related facilities including dozens of closed-circuit television cameras.

The stadium currently houses two main spectator stands - the west and east stands - and the municipality retains the option of adding a further 2,000 seats on the northern and southern ends of the field in the short term. On completion of the second stage of development, the stadium, which will be one of four to host the European Under-21 Championships in July, is eventually projected to hold 24,000 spectators.

Not that everyone present enjoyed their first visit to the stadium - thousands of fans found themselves stuck in traffic jams leading to the game, and irate fans clashed with stewards outside the grounds before the gates were finally opened.

Hapoel Tel Aviv started the game briskly and should have had a penalty in the 17th minute when the ball struck Netanya defender Touvarno Pinas's arm, but the referee appeared loathe to ruin the party. Despite the visitors' domination of the early play, they sorely missed striker Toto Tamuz, banned for two games after being controversially sent off against Beitar Jerusalem last week for a perceived rude gesture to the fans.

When Hapoel lost its liveliest forward, Tal Ben Haim, to injury in the 36th minute, the writing was on the wall. The game was punctuated by a series of physical fouls, which resulted in three yellow cards, and looked in danger of deteriorating into a midfield slug-fest as the half-time break approached.

But then the home side suddenly woke up, only to squander two golden scoring chances in as many minutes. Five minutes before half time, Serge Bongeli was guilty of a schoolboy miss after his captain Achmad Saba'a rounded the Tel Aviv defense to set him up for a simple score from five meters, but the Republic of Congo forward fluffed his shot. Then Bongeli's shot was parried by Hapoel Tel Aviv defender Ze'ev Haimovich's arm and the referee immediately pointed to the penalty spot. But Saba'a's low penalty shot lacked pace or direction, and Hapoel goalkeeper Apoula Edel thankfully saved the shot.

But then on the stroke of half time Netanya deservedly took the lead as Saba'a rounded off a fine passing move by powering the ball into Edel's net for the first goal in the new stadium.

Netanya's defense had looked the safer of the two team's rearguards until the 62nd minute, but looked on hopelessly as Hapoel Tel Aviv forward Omer Damari found plenty of room to cut through and slot the ball home for an equalizer the visitors barely deserved.

Netanya winning goal came after it won a questionable free kick on the edge of Tel Aviv's penalty box. Ali El-Khatib, who had come on as a substitute only three minutes earlier, superbly placed his free kick around the defensive wall into the corner of the unsighted Edel's net for 2-1.

Hapoel Tel Aviv, which looked a pale shadow of its team of yesteryear, rarely appeared capable of pulling itself back into the game.