In the seaside suburb of Tel Aviv where I grew up, there were few insults more devastating to a young man’s pride than being called a fan of Hapoel. My friends and family all rooted for Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel’s chief rival. Maccabi is the soccer team of champions: With gold-and-azure jerseys, a Star of David for an emblem, and a name that evoked the proud warriors of Jewish antiquity, we had no doubt that the Maccabis were the ones to follow. Hapoel, by contrast, literally means “the worker”; add to that the red shirts and the socialist ties (check out its logo), and you have a young, zealous Zionist sports fan’s worst nightmare.
But last week, as I heard of Hapoel Tel Aviv’s advancement to the prestigious group stage of the UEFA Champions League—the annual tournament that pits Europe’s 32 greatest clubs against each other—I was delighted to discover that the silly prejudices of my youth have faded away. I was thrilled for Hapoel, and proud to see an Israeli soccer club enjoy such a sensational achievement.
Philosophically speaking, there have been Jewish teams in the tournament before: Amsterdam’s Ajax and London’s Tottenham Hotspur are, for reasons too complicated to consider here, known to fans as the Jews and the Yids, respectively. But Hapoel is a real Jewish team (with mostly Israeli players; Israeli clubs are allowed only up to five non-nationals), and it has already given Europe a taste of its convictions: As the Reds from Tel Aviv defeated Austria’s FC Red Bull Salzburg, Hapoel’s Itay Schechter, having scored a goal, pulled a yarmulke out of his sock and defiantly placed it on his head. On September 14, as Hapoel faces Benfica Lisbon for its first game in the arduous tournament, I’ll be rooting for the home team, its colors be damned.