The elementary school outside Tel Aviv I attended was situated on the fault line between two dramatically divergent neighborhoods. To the south lay Herzliya Pituach, the affluent seaside community home to many of Israel’s wealthiest families. To the north was Nof Yam, a modest neighborhood built by the sons and daughters of the labor movement, a spacious but unassuming colony of small houses and sensible backyards. Walking around the school yard, you would’ve been hard pressed to tell which child came from which side of the socioeconomic divide; Israel in the 1980s still clung to whatever remained of its egalitarian dreams. One way to know for sure, however, was to observe each child’s attitude to his or her favorite soccer team.
The kids from Nof Yam, true to their ideological roots, tended to root for Hapoel Tel Aviv, the red-shirted flagship team of the historical left-wing labor movement. The kids from Pituach went for Maccabi Tel Aviv, the first football club in pre-state Palestine and the poster boys for professional, moneyed sports. The kids from Nof Yam would say things like “winning isn’t everything” and “fair play is great play.” The kids from Pituach would say things like “winning is the only thing” and “by any means necessary.”
But last night, at home, Hapoel Tel Aviv played nothing like its historic image as Israeli football’s nice, hapless guys: Continuing its run in the European Champions League, Hapoel finally put in a performance worthy of champions, drawing 0-0 against Germany’s Schalke. With a few key players—including the terrific Itay Shechter—benched by injury, Hapoel nonetheless took the pitch with confidence and determination, rendering Klass-Jan Huntelaar and Raul virtually ineffective and creating a host of terrific situations gallantly foiled by Schalke’s outstanding goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer. Hapoel’s goalkeeper, the magical Nigerian Vincent Enyeama, was terrific as usual, blocking one mighty try from Sergio Escudero and parrying off a few other half-hearted German attempts at the net.
Throughout the game, both teams looked nothing like what they had been two weeks ago, when they last met: Schalke was anemic and hesitant, Hapoel strong and certain. And despite not managing to eke out a win (and, er, guaranteeing that they will fail to qualify for the League’s elimination stages), Hapoel secured its point: An historic achievement for an Israeli soccer team. Hapoel will play Benfica Lisbon in two weeks