Hanukkah, traditionally, is a splendid time for Jews in need of miracles, and the more celestially minded among Hapoel Tel Aviv’s fans were hoping that the same gracious God who found it in His heart to make that oil last just a few nights more would also help their team hold on to the dream of European glory for a little while longer. (Which is ironic considering that Hapoel’s much-reviled cross-town rival is Maccabi Tel Aviv.)
On Thanksgiving Eve—a date with no particular spiritual significance—that miracle seemed more possible than ever: With two goals from Eran Zahavi, one from Da Silva, and none from opponent Benfica Lisbon, Hapoel delivered the first Israeli victory in the Champions League since 2004 and sent the punditry into a tizzy. One more victory, they chattered, and Hapoel advances. All Tel Aviv’s Red Devils had to do was beat Lyon.
As the game unfolded yesterday, it seemed like Hanukkah all over again, with Lyon playing the part of the befuddled and bumbling empire and Hapoel that of the small and dedicated band of Jewish warriors. Lyon’s Lisandro Lopez scored the opening goal in the 62nd minute, but Shay Abutbul took no more than a minute to cut through the French defense; Ben Sahar knew just what to do with that pass and scored.
This was no miracle: It was good soccer. The divine intervention came six minutes later: In a bicycle kick too beautiful and amazing to be described (you can watch it below), Zahavi gave Hapoel the lead. The clock was ticking. The game was nearly over. Israel’s champions looked set for a momentous occasion. Moments before the final whistle, Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette scored. The dream was over. Final score: A 2-2 draw, not quite good enough for advancement.
Hapoel may be homeward-bound, but it should have few regrets. It was persistent, disciplined, and spirited. Even more than miraculous victories, being those things is the true meaning of Hanukkah.