The Last Word / Alas, the Tribe Has Dispersed

Anyone beyond a certain age can recall the last time soccer's Premier League had 16 teams. It was the norm before they subjected us to a series of strange experiments and a carousel of stupid formats. Give Avi Luzon some credit. His Maccabi Petah Tikva would have remained even in the 12-team format. Perhaps his goal was to restore the league to its former glory and the tense excitement that once was.

The only thing certain is that it's a mission impossible. You can't reassemble a broken glass, fall upward or go back in time. In the country's most popular sport, the top tier was a tribal camp fire, eight games at the same time, the "Songs and Goals" radio show and peak ratings on Saturday nights.

Globalization, privatization, multi-channel television, poor management and capitulating to capitalism - not all the fault of the Israel Football Association, of course - turned the local league into another sports niche. It's popular, but no more than a niche - not a hot topic for Sunday mornings.

Anyone addicted to "Songs and Goals" or the goal summaries who realized he could get by without them won't go back. Anyone who needs to pay to see his favorite team on television would rather see something else more often than not. What was once the bread and butter of Israeli sport no longer interests many people - who lives solely on bread and butter anymore? The camp fire was extinguished by personal interest and folly. It could be reignited, but as one of many fires. The tribe has dispersed.

The national team will always hold an interest, perhaps the Israelis in Europe, too. However, the local league is dying. The last thing to save it will be the number of teams comprising it. Fan attendance is in decline, ratings have tanked. The post-game show is embarrassing. The level of play is low. Most of the facilities are a joke, and the some of the fans - to be delicate - are soccer fans. Many of those who used to watch the greats of yesteryear vote with their feet and their remote controls in the wake of more flashy alternatives.

Ra'anana, the city where I have lived for the past 10 years, had its first team ever promoted to the Premier League, and the stadium just happens to be right under my nose, in my own neighborhood. Am I excited? On the contrary, the adults launched a protest - and rightfully so - that the city broke the mayor's commitment and they don't need the noise and commotion.

The adults may be one thing, but there should be enormous excitement among the kids to be walking distance from the number one sport. Yet none of them are walking around with a Hapoel Ra'anana shirt, not even the colors of any other local club. Rather, they are more interested in the colors of Barcelona or Real Madrid, Manchester United or Arsenal, Brazil or Argentina.

Ra'anana is no Acre. Ramat Gan is no Be'er Sheva, you say. Perhaps not, but even so it's still a niche sport. It has a glorious past, a problematic present and a murky future. Or, to paraphrase former player and assistant national coach Moshe Sinai, there's soccer and then there's Israeli soccer.