Jolly Green Giants
The next stop on our continuing global journey into football culture finds us pulling into Western Asia. Israel to be more specific and their pride and joy Maccabi Haifa FC. Some people refer to them as The Greens, others just simply מועדון הכדורגל מכבי חיפה. Being - as they are - the EFW team of choice in Israel, we wanted to get to know them a bit better and so we dialled up our Israeli correspondent Ofer Prossner to find out more:
Tell me a bit about yourself and why you support Maccabi Haifa. I'm a 27 year old aspiring screenwriter who currently works as a sports write in Tel Aviv, which is the cultural centre of Israel, and is 100km from Haifa. Support for Maccabi Haifa is a family thing, at least for me. My Dad gave me and my brother the gift/curse. He took my brother to his first game when was 3 years old, and mine, if I remember correctly was at 8 years old.
What sort of crowds in terms of numbers does Maccabi Haifa attract? Well, it depends. We actually sold out the national stadium for the Champions League games with crowds of 40,000 (unheard of in Israel, especially as that stadium is in Tel Aviv), but in the Israeli Premier League, usually home crowds are in the region of 6-7,000.
Do you get any away supporters at the Kiryat Eliezer? Of course, since Israel is a very small country, away supporters always come to the Kirya - they are housed in the worst seats though.
How good is your away support? Well, I'm not objective, but I rather like it. We used to often outnumber home fans - which was fun. There is a feeling nowadays though that since we became the most successful side in the league (over the last decade), our attendances, both home and away have dwindled a bit.
Is there an ultra culture in Israeli football? Jerusalem, Yes there is. Each one of the big 4 (us, BeitarHapeol Tel Aviv and Maccabi Tel Aviv have rather good ultras). I must say that in terms of creativity, and if you are a neutral supporter, Hapoel's ultras give you the best entertainment. But the Green Apes, Maccabi Haifa's ultras, are very good and extremely passionate, sitting in the famous Gimel (the 3rd letter in the Hebrew alphabet) block in the Kirya.
Who are your rivals? Well, we consider the other 3 of the big four our rivals, and it usually depends who is running against us in the championship race. But we really dislike Maccabi Tel Aviv, it's kind of the peripheral team (us) against the big city up-nosed-know-it-alls. And of course, we have our local rivals, Hapeol Haifa, which I consider my top most hated team.
What is derby day like in Haifa (v Hapoel)? Well, we share the same stadium but we have more fans than they do. During the mid to late 90's, the derby was great because Hapoel had a very strong team that even won a championship - their only one. This season the derby is on the weekend of the 26th December and it should be awesome.
Is there a bigger game in your season than that one? The biggest games each season are the European cup games; they are the most anticipated and the most important.
Is it easy to get tickets for home matches? It usually is, since for the average league game, we usually only fill half of the stadium.
If the EFW team cam to Haifa for a match, would we be made welcome? Very much so! People in Israel are very friendly and like speaking with foreigners about anything - apart from politics. You'd be most welcome, just come already.
What is the beer situation in and around the ground? Could you recommend us a nice pre and post match drinking venue? You've hit on a touchy subject there. Beer is not sold in Israeli grounds and is not considered a staple in the Israeli football food and drink plethora. Also, the stadium does not have pubs near it. You can buy cheap bottles in nearby shops. There's no such thing as a license in the holy land.
How many games can you feasibly see in one weekend in Israel? Oh well, since I know EFW's liking of lower leagues, I say that 4 or even 5 is not too hard to achieve - and I shall explain. In Israel, the weekend starts in effect on Thursday evening. You can catch a 2nd Division game on Friday afternoon, sometimes two games on a Saturday, one on a Sunday and another lower league game on Monday afternoon and one Premier League game on Monday evening. Remember that Israel is a small country, so if you rent a car you can see at the very least three matches but the stadiums aren't that great.
How much would a match ticket cost us? Tickets usually cost between 70-90 shekels - 12 to 15 quid for Premier League matches.
We sell terrible food in English stadiums at silly prices. What sort of food can we procure in Israeli grounds? Not that good either, but in Haifa, the best donner in the city is right outside the stadium. Israeli grub is one of the best in the world, ask anyone.
How safe is watching football in Israel? Watching a game is usually a safe experience although we get the occasional problem. Lately, things are quiet. Our biggest problem in the stadiums, in my opinion, is the fact that we don't have stewards but policemen. Police special forces are in charge of security in the stadium, a thing that causes clashes sometimes.
Is there a hooligan problem? The only team that has a hooligan problem is Beitar Jerusalem. Their fans have been known to taunt Arabic players and even yell racist remarks. But most of the time, no hooligans, although you might see or hear some off colour signs and chants.
What is the Kiryat Eliezer stadium like? Well, I've had many good times there, so I have emotions towards it, but it's old and I can honestly say it's a dump. It's like an old dog in a way.
I've heard you are in the process of building a new one? Yes we are, a top notch modern 32,000 all seater which should - according to the plans - be the best in Israel and even a good match to some European stadiums. Knowing my country and the way things are, I'm pessimistic and I just hope it'll be built before Lewes FC's next Champions League game.
And the best stadium in Israel? I have to say Bloomfield - the municipal stadium of Tel Aviv, which is located in Jaffa (but doesn't sell Jaffa Cakes). Its the only stadium in Israel that is totally enclosed and it has great site lines. It's home to Maccabi and Hapoel Tel Aviv and also to the third team from Tel Aviv - Bney Yehuda. Second best is Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium.
Playing Champions League matches in Cyprus must have been a bit of a pain? Our first Champions League campaign was played in Cyprus, 7 years ago and it was indeed a pain. But this year we played in the national stadium and actually made a record as the worst team ever to appear in the Champions League. Did I mention I absolutely freaking hate the national stadium? And it's not just me - almost every football fan in Israel hates it.
Does politics play a part in Israeli football? Where to even start, of course it does. Politics plays a part in every aspect of the Israeli life. I won't go into details about how the IFA is being fun, but from a fan's prospective I will say that of the big 4 - Hapoel tend to see themselves as lefties and anti institution while Beitar see themselves as right wing. This is why games between those two are hotly contested. Beitar are the only team in the Premier League never to have fielded an Arab player, although Jerusalem is a very big Arab city as well as Jewish.
What is the biggest match in Israeli football? The two biggest are Hapoel Tel Aviv v Beitar Jerusalem (for the reasons I listed above) and the Tel Aviv derby between Maccabi and Hapoel, which was given it's own chapter in the Andy Mitten book - "Mad For It".
How big is Israel's version of the FA Cup? Ahhh...the Israeli Cup - how I love it. For years, one of the best fixtures in the Israeli football calendar is the semi final day. A double header in the national stadium, which brings out lots of fans. It takes place in the spring and is great fun to be in. Cup games are loved in Israel.
Does football dominate the press? Yes, but basketball is our No.2 sport. We have one team that won the European top competition a few times but in recent years basketball is losing it since there are too many foreign players. Also, at the start of this year, a famous basketball official hung himself which led to an ongoing investigation about the purity of the game. It's a shame really - I don't follow Maccabi Haifa's basketball team anymore because of that.
What has been the highlight of supporting Maccabi Haifa? It's so hard to pick one but the first ever Champions League game of an Israeli team at Old Trafford was something else. We went 1-0 up early on and that was absolutely amazing. We lost 5-2 in the end but in the return leg in the group we beat Man Utd 3-0. That game took place in Cyprus and I couldn't attend because of my army service. There was also a famous last minute win against PSG (3-2) and in Israel; I shall always cherish the derby victory after Hapoel's championship season - a remarkable game.
Obviously, we've heard of Avram Grant and Yossi Benayoun but who is the next star you are going to let loose over here? Look for a young talent by the name of Eyal Golasa - he wears Benayoun's No.15 shirt, has long hair and he looks like he dances with the ball. Also, there is Muhammad Gadir, a young striker with excellent pace.
What is the club song like at Maccabi Haifa and can we swing a fast shoe to it? Oh, it's hard to translate but here is a YouTube clip.
Do you have a mascot? Nope, but we used to have a lovely lion. It's been 15 years since him going away. (I feel an EFW campaign coming on there don't you? - Ed).
Is there any interest in English football in Haifa outside of the big four? We love English football. Some are Tottenham fans after Ronny Rosenthal (who grew up in the ranks of Maccabi Haifa) and flock to England each Christmas to watch matches. But generally, the big four and any team that has an Israeli player or coach.
Presumably, Lewes FC has their own Israeli fan club? My lower league heart lies with Leyton Orient but I know that next time I'm in England, if I go to a Lewes game - I'll be hooked.
As well as our European football, we love our non-league stuff here at EFW. Is there much of a non-league scene in Israel? The biggest and most passionate non league (the lowest 3 leagues in Israel are not professional) teams are found in Arab villages and cities. As a former referee in the lower leagues in the north, I have to say that attendances vary but they do not exceed 1,000. Having said that - a lot of Premier League matches are poorly attending as well.
What sort of wages are players on? Is it all about money, money, money in the Israeli Premiership? Money is a very big part of the game nowadays and Maccabi players get paid some of the biggest wages in Israel. There is a big parity between teams because of those financial issues.
Tell us something we don't know about Maccabi Haifa. We once lost a cup final 12-1. For years there was a Brazil flag in the stands as Maccabi is synonymous with beautiful football. We have the longest serving owner of a football team in Israel - Yaakov Shachar - who has been here almost 20 years.
Anything else to add? A nice tidbit -as far as I can remember - Maccabi Haifa have used at least 10 grounds in European competitions, which I believe is some sort of record. We've played games at four different grounds in Israel, and also home games in the Ukraine, Holland (2 different ones), Bulgaria, Turkey and Cyprus.
And so concludes our little chat with Ofer which I hope you enjoyed. I'm now a lot more clued up about Maccabi Haifa and Israeli football in general. We've stuck Haifa at the top of our 'to do' list for 2010 and we'll be over there for the derby if you want to join us? Right, I'm now off to pen a letter to the club to get that lion mascot reinstated. In fact, I want to be in that lion costume for the derby match next season - just you watch.
Thanks to our friends at the Maccabi Haifa online website for the photos.