A sea of blue and white at Citi Field in Queens—but whose? By chance, Honduras and Israel, which played an international soccer friendly there Sunday, have strikingly similar flags. With an announced crowd of 26,170, nearly a quarter of the New York region’s estimated 60,000 Hondurans must have been in attendance, with customary soccer-fandom accouterments: horns, face paint, and flag capes. The motto for the Catrachos is “Ahora Sí Papá”—now we’re not kidding anymore, we really mean it. On the Israeli side: schools of overexcited boys, Long Island families, shirtless bald Israelis, and matching-T-shirted groups still buoyant from the earlier Celebrate Israel events in New York, which included an 8 a.m. run in Central Park and a midday parade down 5th Ave. One fan I met in the stands explained her presence by pointing to her young daughter—a curly-headed coffee-skinned cutie—and saying, “Her father is from Honduras, I am from Israel.” From behind first base a chant would take root and grow—HON-DU-RAS! HON-DU-RAS!—only to be countered from left center field by a less numerous, but no less boisterous EH RETZ IS-RA-EL! EH RETZ IS-RA-EL!—drowned out by breaching jumbo jets.
Out trotted Ido Aharoni, Israel’s Consul General in New York (wide applause), mostly to introduce the other Grand Pooh-Bah, Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire (huge applause), who seems to enjoy something of a mascot role for Israeli sporting causes. My friend, neither Honduran nor Israeli, was concerned that the Hondurans were warming up with passing drills, while the Israelis seemed to be doing nothing but IDF-inspired calisthenics.
Anthems, alignments, tweeeeet. While the Mets were being swept in Florida, groundcrews had laid sod on the basepaths and squeezed in the narrowest field-size soccer’s governing body FIFA allows, essentially stripping the game of accelerations down either wing. Hondurans couldn’t penetrate a stout Israeli midfield; Israelis couldn’t push through on short passing. Meanwhile, the line for the Kosher Grill snaked out of its stanchions. Why were there not tamale and baleada vendors? Seemed unfair to cater to one fandom’s food choices and not the other’s.
At the scoreless half, as Hondurans emptied their bladders of tallboys of Bud Light, the Citi Field Jumbotron played an Israeli propaganda film touting the Jewish State’s many achievements (Nobels, immigration absorption, “making the desert bloom,” “uniting Jerusalem”), followed by a video pep talk from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying, more or less, how much Israel loves America. Projections of national leaders in sporting stadiums make me nervous, but the smattering of disinterested light applause Bibi got made me less so. On the Honduran side, CentroaméricaTV (slogan: estás con tu gente; you’re with your people) ran some ads.
At the start of the second half, Israel coach Eli Guttman sat his captain, Yossi Benayoun. It was announced as injury but the Chelsea winger had been ineffective, even after being switched from temporarily-sodded right (first base) to left (left field). The 33-year-old Benayoun had attracted much of the press in the run-up to the game for his vocal promise to quit the English Premier League, where he says his team’s own fans call him “little Jew and worse,” and for his pleas to be picked up by a team, any team, in the perhaps more racially sensitive United States. (“Yossi Benayoun really wants to come to MLS,” read one understated headline.)
On the field, the pre-game aerobics seemed to be paying off. Two Israeli defenders converged on every Honduran pass, prompting some fast-break counters. Maccabi Haifa’s Hen Ezra slammed a twisting bullet of a shot into the upper left corner for the game’s first goal, and 24 minutes later Hapoel Kiryat Shmona’s Shimon Abuhazira trippingly tucked away a low cross for insurance. Israeli goalie Ariel Harush shut down the late desperate push from the Central Americans, and after the game, the Honduran fans could be heard complaining loudly about their team’s inability to find the net. So: Tiny nation, outnumbered in supporters 10-1, tenaciously defends turf, successfully conducts quick strikes in enemy territory, delivers positive media message, reaffirms ties to the United States. Israel wins a friendly.