On the beaches of Tel Aviv nowadays, you are as likely to catch fragments of a conversation in French as in Hebrew. Restaurants along the Mediterranean softly play Chevalier. Shopkeepers, never an overtly polite species, have mastered merci. With waves and waves of French Jews crashing on Tel Avivâ€™s shores and flooding the town with much coveted foreign currency, the first Hebrew metropolis has become an extension of the Francophone empire.
The same, alas, is true for soccer. Playing Hapoel in Tel Aviv in the second round of the European Champions League last week, Franceâ€™s Lyon treated the locals much as the French Jews on the beaches do: With a touch of bemusement, a note of compassion, and a benevolent disregard.
Hapoel took the pitch in fury, with Dedi Ben Dayan launching what looked like a mightily threatening kick and forcing Lyonâ€™s charmant goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris, to display radical elasticity. Hapoelâ€™s fans, however, would have done well to go home then and there: A few moments later, a needlessly aggressive Walid Badir fouled Lyonâ€™s Jimmy Briand in the box, and the French championsâ€™ Brazilian star, Michel Bastos, effortlessly drove the penalty kick home.
For the rest of the game, Lyonâ€™s boys seemed as if they were merely ambling down the Champs Elysees, baguette tucked underarm, with no care in the world. They played that beautiful, relaxed kind of soccer one associates with France in its heyday (think Michel Platini in short shorts). Bastos scored again before the end of the first half, and the second was Lyonâ€™s through and through. A penalty kick by Vincent Enyeama, Hapoelâ€™s excellent Nigerian goalkeeper, gave the local fans a moment of joy, but Lyonâ€™s Miralem Pjanic scored his teamâ€™s third and crushed the hopes of Tel Avivâ€™s Red Demons. Some bitter sports commentators in Tel Aviv suggested that the game was the perfect embodiment of Hapoelâ€™s international career: Strong and fast for a few moments; then confused and defenseless; and, finally, dejected and defeated.
Hapoel plays next in the Champions League at home against FC Schalke, of Germany’s Bundesliga.
Earlier: Game 1: Tel Aviv 0, Lisbon 2