For sports fans fond of grand metaphors and prone to sizing up games on a world-historical scale—which is to say, every sports fan who ever lived—the soccer match last night between Hapoel Tel Aviv and Benfica Lisbon was a shiny microcosm of the Jewish state’s woes.
The game was Hapoel’s first test in the prestigious UEFA Champions League (they have at least three more games—but probably only three more games—to go), and the Red Demons, as they’re known back home, took the pitch in a fury, playing fast and pressing hard. Then, fifteen minutes into the game, Tel Aviv’s mercurial striker Itay Shechter—best remembered for pulling a yarmulke out of his sock after scoring against Salzburg last month—was fouled inside the box. Which, for those of you who still think football is a game played by overgrown men in tights, means a penalty kick. Only the referees missed the whole thing; no penalty was awarded; and the Demons—Tablet Magazine’s official Champions League squad—found themselves robbed of their just deserts by a gaggle of hostile goyim.
This, of course, is where the metaphor comes up strong. Watching the tragedy unfurl, hundreds of thousands of Israelis most likely hissed that Hapoel, like Israel itself, was hated just for being Jewish, and that, like Israel itself, Hapoel’s only choice was to respond by being more aggressive. The Demons did just that. For ten minutes or so, all you could see was a white-and-red swirl charging, like an ominous hurricane on a meteorological map, overwhelming the Portuguese defense and threatening havoc.
But Lisbon, a melancholy town, a town of Fado and salted cod and the bitter aftertaste of a long-faded empire, isn’t one to lose its cool. On the 21st minute, Luisão, Benfica’s Brazilian defender, caught a beautiful air ball and kicked it clean into Hapoel’s net. The fans in Lisbon screamed, but if you listened closely you could hear something snap in Itay Shechter’s head. Soon after, he got the ball and charged Benfica’s box, as if it were a Hezbollah stronghold. Again, he was fouled. Again, no call for penalty. This was more than the poor striker could take: He started shouting. And the ref, unimpressed, pulled out a yellow card for playacting.
The game went on for more than an hour thereafter. Lisbon scored another goal. But Hapoel—with the exception of their phenomenal keeper, Vincent Enyeama (who tends goal for the Nigerian national team)—wasn’t there. Like the country they represented, they started off strong but succumbed to consistent resistance. They howled that the game wasn’t fair but failed to play it well enough to level the field. All they had as they trudged back to their locker room was the sour relief that one conflict was over and the thudding dread that another one—at home against France’s Lyon on September 29—was imminent. Here’s hoping.
Earlier: Hapoelim of the World, Unite!