Thousands Show Up to Cheer Experimental Fan-owned Soccer Team

Even though his team lost, Hapoel Nahalat Yehuda's only fan in Rishon Letzion was still riding the adrenaline rush, even though Hapoel Katamon won the match 2-1 on Friday at the capital's Givat Ram Stadium.

It was the first game the veteran League A South team had played this season. But the fan said that to him, the game didn't seem like a League A match at all. "It seemed more like a Super League game," he said.

Many of the 2,500 Katamon fans who came to the game also found it hard to curb their enthusiasm. Before the games, the optimists said no more than 1,000 fans might attend. The figure was crucial, because most realized that it would serve to gauge the success of the fascinating experiment they had been performing in the past couple of months: forming a brand new soccer team, owned and managed by the fans.

The experiment passed its initial test with flying colors, as the thousands of fans who came out for the match showed. Many wore red shirts, waved giant banners and banged giant drums. All these were encouraging signs. After all, such shows of support are virtually unheard of in Leauge A soccer.

It all started more than six months ago, when it became apparent that Hapoel Jerusalem, which used to be one of Israel's most glorious teams, was about to lose its slot on the national league. After years of watching their team wading its way through the second league, most fans thought they had a good understanding of why it had slipped to the third, and what prevented the team from bouncing back.

The fans believed that at the root of the problem stood the two Jerusalemite businessmen who owned the team: Victor Yona and Yossi Sasi - or Sasyona, as the fans call them.

The two co-owners are embroiled in a lengthy legal battle, with many twists and turns, through which they insist on remaining in joint control of the team. This was, of course, reflected in how the team was managed. When Hapoel Jerusalem fell to the third league, most fans decided that the team had no future as long as it remained in Sasyona's possession.

And this was what drove Uri Schretzky, a sports magazine editor, to form a new team, owned by the fans. That team, he argued, would be "the real Hapoel Jerusalem."

More than 500 fans pitched in to purchase a NIS 1,000 stake in the team, and businessmen provided additional funds.