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Jerusalem Diary: Monday 19 May

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem

'ARKADI GAYDAMAK IS A GOOD BLOKE'

The Israeli football season ends this month. I have watched two teams, at either end of the league system.

Betar (in yellow) versus mainly Arab team Bnei Sakhnin
Political views dominate football, along with everything else, in Israel

The second match should have been a celebration. In the end, it was a shambles. This was the Sunday night, several weeks ago, when Betar Jerusalem, by a country mile and several million dollars the best football team in Israel, was about to claim the championship.

Betar has something of a reputation. Yossi Sarid, a left-wing former member of the Israeli parliament, once called it "the world's most disgusting team".

It was founded in the 1930s out of the youth wing of the "Revisionist" movement, the brand of Zionism that sought a Jewish homeland along both banks of the River Jordan. The senior team has never signed an Arab player.

Strangely, the atmosphere in Teddy Stadium was a little flat. The 22,000-seat stadium was only a little more than half full.

Among the supporters was Mark Regev, the prime minister's spokesman, in the team colours of a black shirt and yellow tie. Draped over the north stand was a large banner, proclaiming "There's no reason to love you, ever since 1936" - a reference to the year the Arab Revolt began in Palestine.

But at no point did I hear any of the racist chanting for which Betar fans have become infamous. Rather - and perhaps incongruously - there was a Kurdish dancing song, the yell "Yalla Betar" (Arabic for "Let's go, Betar) and the chant which roughly translates to "Arkadi Gaydamak is a good bloke".

Mr Gaydamak is the Russian squillionaire who arrived in Israel, for a second time, in 2000, and announced his presence by donating huge sums to Jewish and Israeli causes, buying a Premier League football team, and saying that he wanted to become the next mayor of Jerusalem, and the pre-eminent force in the Knesset.

All this despite what his aides readily confess is an inability to speak decent Hebrew.

The game, up to the 86th minute, was astonishingly drab. Halfway through the first half, the assortment of ill-shaven, T-shirt wearing sportswriters, among whom I was sitting, raised their chins from their writing desks only when Arkadi Gaydamak ascended, at a regally slow pace, to his box. "Like Marcus Aurelius," one of the hacks breathed to me.

Then, four minutes from time, with their team 1-0 up against Maccabee Herziliya, hundreds - possibly thousands - of Betar fans could not contain their glee at the prospect of a second straight year as champions.

They poured on to the pitch. The police and stewards made no attempt, as far as I could see, to stop them. The players who had not raced to the tunnel in time were subsumed under the yellow and black-clad wave.

The Betar goalkeeper eventually emerged teetering on the shoulders of the fans. He had been stripped and plucked, wearing nothing more than undershorts, an ankle strap, and a rueful grin.

I asked Arkadi Gaydamak what on earth was going on. He frowned, shrugged and walked off. One of his closest aides was more forthcoming. "The trouble is," he told me, "they breed too fast."

Betar was docked points, lectured, fined, and still won the championship, on Sunday, with two games to spare.

'THE LAND WHERE TWO NATIONS LIVE TOGETHER'

Hapoel Katamon is stuck at the other end of the league structure. They also play at Teddy Stadium, but when I last saw them, playing Ramla on a Saturday evening, only the west stand had been opened for the few hundred fans.

Hapoel Katamon logo
The hammer and sickle logo is a clue to where Hapoel Katamon is coming from

Across the east stand, a large banner had been draped. The Turkish and Israeli flags were prominently displayed, along with the name of Katamon's sponsors, the Turkish construction group, Yilmazlar.

This has been Hapoel Katamon's first season. It was formed by fans of the Hapoel Jerusalem team, who were fed up with the antics of their team's owners.

Seven hundred of them forked out 1,000 shekels ($292, 148) each to buy out two other teams (Abu Ghosh and Mevasseret Zion), and rebrand them as Hapoel Katamon. The fans dream still of a merger with Hapoel Jerusalem, but there is no immediate sign of that happening.

Hapoel Katamon's logo displays a silhouette of an athlete in full socialist-realist-hero pose, surrounded by a hammer and sickle. The club is "very ideological, very socialist", one of the fans, Nir Yanovsky, told me during half-time.

"So was Hapoel Jerusalem, once," he said. "It was during the 1960s and 1970s, when the left was in power in Israel. But as the Labour Party started losing height, so did the club."

The first time I saw Hapoel Katamon, at the start of the season, it was the first time I heard football fans singing The Internationale. The half-time entertainment was to bring on to the pitch a group of Darfurian refugees. The crowd went wild.

At the game against Ramla, a trumpeter bizarrely struck up the theme to The Great Escape (an England football song, which in turn comes from a film about the derring-do of British and American POWs during World War II). And there was a song aimed at Betar's owner:

What am I doing here?
I don't know.
Arkadi - this is the land,
This is the land where two nations live together.

The football was - as often happens in the lower leagues - open and entertaining. The players quickly became far too knackered to join in the goal celebrations; they would take the opportunity to bend at the waist and take a breather. Ramla had done Katamon a favour by fielding their number 22, otherwise known as The World's Smallest Goalkeeper. Katamon dominated the game, and strolled to a 4-2 win.

Before Nir Yanovsky returned to his position in the stands, mid-throng, he leaned into my ear: "I'll let you into a secret," he whispered. "The football isn't that good in this league. But people come here because they're supporting an idea."


Your thoughts and comments on Tim Franks' latest diary:

Please tell us about the soccer teams in the Holy Land where Arabs and Jews play together with real solidarity and hope for living together, rather than false gleam and narcissism most soccer teams around the world are inflicted with.
Samer Kader, Minneapolis, USA

Arkadi Gaydamak owns the Betar Jerusalem football team. He also is the major financial backer ($400,000) for the Arab Bnei Saknin football club. That surely was relevant information and more than a little ironic. Hapoel Katamon did not design the badge as could be implied by the article. Every Hapoel team wears the hammer and sickle badge of the Histadrut Trade Union sporting federation. Almost all Israeli sport is attached to one of the Israeli sporting federations, which are in turn, at least historically, connected to political movements. IMHO this is to the great detriment of Israeli sport.
Deegee, Rehovot, Israel


TIM FRANKS' JERUSALEM DIARY

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