It is Christmas Eve in Tel Aviv and I’m off to the football. Kick-off is at 17:00 after another warm winter’s day. A cool change is coming in from the Mediterranean as I walk to Bloomfield Stadium, near old Jaffa town. The wind is picking up, the sky clouding over and in the distance I hear thunder.
After a basic English conversation at the ticket office, I buy a ticket for Gate 8 where the home team Hapoel Tel Aviv supporters are seated. Hapoel Tel Aviv is one of the most renowned clubs in the Israeli ‘Ligat HaAl’. They have played, and beaten, some of Europe’s premier teams in the Champions and UAFA Cup leagues. Also, they have won the local Israeli competition thirteen times.
No alcohol is served inside the stadium and the pub across the road is full of Hapoel fans. There’s no Christmas tinsel to be seen. It is Hanukkah time in Israel and Christmas trees are swapped for candelabras. Saturday night is the end of the weekend with Sunday the first day of the Israeli working week.
I drink a Gold Star beer at the pub then attempt to find Gate 8. I accidently pass it as I walk around the outside stadium fence and have to backtrack past security who had asked no questions when I first passed by. Now an armed guard stops me and I guess he asks where I am going.
“You speak English?” I plead as I show him my ticket. It has a large bold “8” printed on it. “Gate 8”.
He talks again in agitated Hebrew and I shrug my shoulders back.
He stutters out “you….you foreigner?”
“Yes I go to gate 8” pointing over his left shoulder as I see it now. The sign was hidden behind the hessian on the perimeter fence. Another security guard appears and after looking at my ticket lets me through.
At the gate fence security check bags for bottles, bombs, whatever and direct me down the line for a thorough pat-down. Once inside, I walk up the stairs and sit in the roofless stand watching the teams warm up. Bloomfield Stadium holds just over 15,000 and tonight it looks half full. The fans at both ends are singing and waving flags as the players go through their drills. One end is orange for Bnei Yehuda and the home team terrace is red.
The players walk out and line up to sing the national anthem. I don’t know what the milestone is but the manager of Hapoel receives a flower bouquet and lots of cheering after his speech.
At kick-off the crowd go silent and everyone sits down. I’ve never seen this happen at a game before. In Israel, the done thing must be to respect the first few minutes and pay full attention to the game. They didn’t have to sit quiet for long as the first goal was scored by Hapoel’s Omer Damari after two minutes. Everyone celebrates and chant in Hebrew.
Then the skies open. The distant thunder has now moved closer and torrential rain pours down. Umbrellas pop up blocking my view so I stand to watch the game. Usually rain doesn’t bother me but after five minutes of this Israeli thunderstorm I’m out of there to the only cover available – the stairwell. It’s full of people with the same idea, so we all stand squashed together until the end of the first half and the rain eventually eases off to a drizzle.
For the second-half, I stand between seat levels with more animated fans instead of the umbrella families. I am closer to the action and drier than sitting on a soaked seat. Hapoel fans continue to celebrate their lead with three guys jumping and dancing on a cage over the player’s entrance tunnel leading the sing-along. The away side look defeated and soaked as much as the orange flags their fans had put up on the back fence. Most of the flags have fallen down and scattered around on the ground.
The only refreshments I saw available was a guy yelling out “Cola, cola, cola”, although he was mostly selling packets of sunflower seeds. Seed shells were scattered all over the ground as everyone ate them.
Both teams are predominately Israeli players but a rare foreigner from Lithuania scored a goal for Bnei Yehuda after 80 minutes to level the scores at 1-1.
At the full-time whistle, I leave the stadium with everyone else spilling onto the street. Everyone is quiet with no cheering or happy faces. It was a draw after all.