The game of the fans

For some football is the „beautiful game”. In the less advantaged places of Israel, it’s more than that. The fan group Sderot Ultras that was founded two years ago is a good example. The rocket battered town’s Maccabi club only plays in the fourth Israeli league, but Shahar Shitrit, one of the leading figures of the Sderot Ultras explains: „Small children come with their parents to the stadium and we have many women in the stands.“ Some of them were not interested in football at all and started to come only for the atmosphere. „The games on Friday have shaped the city. People are downright waiting for the games.“

Sderot’s former biggest competitor, Maccabi Ironi Ashdod, is now in the third division. There, the club expects a very special derby. In 1999, the major local rivals of the port city of Ashdod, Hapoel and Maccabi, were merged into one team: MS Ashdod. 16 years later, former Maccabi fans decided to revive the old club and formed a team that started playing in the fifth league. Former Hapoel fans and young enthusiasts did the same for the followers of Maccabi and in turn revived „the Reds“.

In addition to the derby in Ashdod the third league south is eagerly waiting for the clash of Maccabi Sha’arayim and Hapoel Marmorek which are from differnt neighborhoods in the city of Rechovot that were founded by members of different immigrant groups from Yemen. There is a mutual animosity between the residents of Sha’arayim and Marmorek, which goes so far that people even use different synagogues and cemeteries. Accordingly, the Yemeni derby of Rechovot is emotionally charged.

In the 2016/2017 season Maccabi Sha’arayim played in the second league. Supported by a group of investors, the club had one of the largest budgets of all teams in the league, but dropped back to the third league at the end of the season and, after the withdrawal of the donors, was at the brink of liquidation. The donations of thousands of followers saved Maccabi Sha’arayim and Perri Shaler, an ardent supporter, says: I am happy to say that the low point and its aftermath is precisely what led me to become more involved in the club and to get to know the people and the fans very closely.” As a graphic designer he spends a great deal of his free time working on the public appearance of Maccabi Sha’arayim. His friend Stephane Haddad participates actively in the Facebook forum of the “Third League South”.

In this forum, the supporters of the various clubs excessively discuss who has the best team and the most dedicated fans. Numerous videos of the ranks convey a picture of the fan milieu of the Third League South: The fans‘ connections to their football clubs is deeply emotional and intergenerational. One of the most dazzling fans of the third league south is „Pini the Great,“ a vocal retiree who lights the mood with a blue sequin hat in the fan block of Sha’arayim.

Like the teams of Ashdod and others in the league, Sha’arayim has a past as a Premier League team but none of the teams in the lower Israeli leagues has a glorious past quite like Hakoah Amidar from the third league south. The club’s history goes back to 1909 in Vienna with the founding of Hakoah Vienna that in 1923 celebrated a victory over West Ham United at Upton Park, which was the first defeat for any English club on home soil at the hands of a foreign opponent. And in 1925 Hakoah Vienna won the Austrian championship.

During the 1930’s some players of Hakoah Vienna emigrated to Palestine and set up a club that after several mergers became Hakoah Maccabi Ramat Gan which went on to win two Israeli championships and two state cups.
In the summer of 2002, after being relegated to the third league, Hakoah was in danger of being shut down. The fans managed to raise the minimum amount of money needed to continue. The year 2003 saw the merger of the club with Maccabi Ramat Amidar from the Amidar neighborhood in Ramat Gan.
Due to its rich past and several mergers the fan scene of Hakoah is very diverse and they feverishly love their team. For a long time the fans were known for their cursing during games, but last season saw various successful attempts of younger fans to catch up with the Ultras‘ support and backdrops of other teams in the league. Yaakov Stiru, a dedicated young Hakoah fan, says: “The atmosphere is the most important thing in football. Football belongs to its fans!” Here ae the Hakoah fans in the Jordan valley attending an away game:

Maccabi Kabilio Yafo was founded by fans. The club rose from the ashes of the club Maccabi Yafo which disintegrated in 1999 due to financial irregularities and then was dissolved. Maccabi Kabilio Yafo is named after the famous goalkeeper and Israeli folk singer Herzl Kabilio, who died of cancer at the age of 35 in 1986 and who has left the Israeli football fans with the hymn „Od Shabat Shel Kaduregel“ (Another Sabbath of Football).

Maccabi Yafo was of great importance as a club of immigrants from Bulgaria as well as a club from the problem-burdened south of the city of Tel Aviv. The dissolution was unbearable for Bar Cohen, a fan of the club that contacted other supporters with the idea of re-establishing the club. After a meeting in December 2007, when the first membership fees were raised, the selection of a squad began. In 2009, 9,000 fans celebrated the promotion from the fifth league. With many small sponsors and a solid financial management, the team has now established itself in the third league. Amit Kalimi, a dedicated supporter, says he is particularly proud of the many youth teams of Kabilio Yafo that are a focal point for many troubled youths in Yafo.

Maccabi Kabilio Yafo was founded as the second fan club in Israeli football – after Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem. Katamons creation was preceded by a dispute between the supporters and the owner of Hapoel Jerusalem over budget issues and mismanagement, which eventually led to the split. According to renowned journalist and diehard fan Gad Lior, Katamon was not only founded for the game but also for social engagement. Thus, to give a few examples, the club invited a group of blind people to a game and hired a professional radio commentator to comment the game for them; the Ultras of Katamon hosted a football tournament with refugees; and in solidarity with the LGBT community Katamon replaced their corner flags with rainbow flags. The pride of the fans are the twelve youth teams in which Arabs from the refugee camp of the Shuafat quarter play with settlers from Gush Etzion.

The founding of the second fan club in Jerusalem, Beitar Nordia is the result of fierce clashes between different supporter camps of Beitar Jerusalem. The racist and violent Ultra group „La Familia“ offended moderate fans, who in 2014 saw the only possibility to continue to cheer for Beitar in the creation of their own Beitar club. “Beitar Nordia Jerusalem” plays in the third division South. Supporters at the games are eager to prove that their club represents the real Beitar: with vociferous, nonstop support for the team and flags that bear a Menorah and a beer-drinking Zeev Jabotinsky, founder of the Zionist Beitar movement.

Before a league match against Beitar Nordia, Ultras of the Arab club MS Kfar Qasem provided their guests with a table with snacks and drinks in the away section. Videos that appeared few hours after the encounter on social media showed the Ultras of both teams in a hookah bar, playing table soccer and chanting together. Prior to the „classico“ as the recent MS Kfar Qasem game against Maccabi Sha’arayim had been announced, the Rechovot fans were invited to eat for free in a hummus eatery and a bakery in Kfar Qasem.

Alaa Amer, who went to every Maccabi Tel Aviv game as a teenager, says Kfar Qasem’s Ultras teamed up in 2013 to make a difference in the city and offer off-the-street opportunities for children and youth. Football fans of the city, previously mostly supporters of major clubs such as Maccabi Haifa or Hapoel Tel Aviv, would have decided to bring the stadium atmosphere that they were addicted to from the first league to the ranks of the local Abu Hamis stadium. Accordingly, most of the chants that can be heard at MS Kfar Qasem games are in Hebrew. Supporting the local team rather than being an Arab supporter of a major Jewish team while being dedicated to uphold good relations with Jewish teams – this is a prime example of the Israelization of the Arab sector.

At the end of an extremely exciting head-to-head race with Hakoah Amidar Ramat Gan, MS Kfar Qasem secured the championship in the third division South last season. The tight promotion race caused tensions between the fan scenes who in times accused each other for foul play like buying games but they never descended in racism. On the contrary, the two team’s fans wished each other the best for their state cup games. The days preceding the direct encounter of the two contestants for promotion saw a joint effort of the fans, supported by all other fans of the league to overturn a police decision to not sell tickets on match day. In the end, the combined efforts bore fruits and there were more than 1000 away fans in Ramat Gan. The promotion to the second league was celebrated for several days in the city of Kfar Qasem and fans from all the teams in the league sent their congratulations.

Last season’s champion of the third league north was Hapoel Umm al-Fahm from the largest Arab city in Israel. More than 5,000 fans came to see their home games in the Salaam Stadium in the second half of the season. As with MS Kfar Qasem, half of the Hapoel Umm al-Fahm’s squad are Jewish players, and their enthusiastic Ultras mostly sing in Hebrew.

After the promotion of MS Kfar Qasem and Hapoel Umm al-Fahm and the relegation of Bnei Sakhnin there’s an additional competition this year in the second league beside the fight for promotion and relegation and it’s about which is the best among the Arab clubs between the mentioned and Akhi Nazareth and Bnei Lod. Beside Hapoel Katamon there will be another fan owned club in the second league: In March, the supporters of Hapoel Petach Tikva bought their own club, and this season they meet their archrival Maccabi Petach Tikva that relegated together with Bnei Sakhnin.

So the new fan forum of the second league comes at the right time. The founder and administrator is Shy Nobleman, a well-known Israeli singer who has been commenting on second division games for the Israeli sports channel for several years. Nobleman says the fans of different clubs have shown interest in an exchange for some time. After their experiences with the forum of the third league south, the fans of Kfar Qasem expressed the urgent desire to found a similar platform for the fans of the teams in the second league. The followers of Hapoel Umm al-Fahm also supported this.

Nobleman invests a lot of his time in the forum. Thanks to his persistence fans of almost all teams of the second league are represented there.

At the beginning some admonitions were necessary to adhere to the rules of conduct, says Nobleman. During the League Cup, the interactions in the forum had increased rapidly and even before the first match day, it was an „incredible success,“ as Nobleman puts it. Highlight of the season so far were the games of Hapoel Umm Al Fahm against Bnei Sakhnin on the first matchday and the game of Hapoel Umm Al Fahm against MS Kfar Qasim in terms of atmosphere.

Since the supporters of the Arab teams are actively involved, the forum is the most impressing Jewish-Arab exchange project – without any NGOs, subsidies and international mediators involved. After Hapoel Petach Tikva lost to Hapoel Umm al-Fahm at home in the fifth round their fans took to the forum and expressed their regard for the away support and stated that they were happy to have hosted the guest fans. Meanwhile fans of MS Kfar Qasim posted in the forum of the third league south about their first win ever in the second league and were congratulated by many of their old rivals.