Normally it takes an event of the magnitude of the World Cup final for me to actually watch sports. But since a kind friend sent me a spare ticket to the Israel vs Estonia Euro 2008 qualifier, I said what the hell. I tried to remember the last time I'd gone to a professional soccer game in a real stadium and came to the conclusion that it was in about 1965! (Aston Villa vs Birmingham City).
Warned of massive traffic jams I arrived by bike. Unnecessary since this wasn't Israel vs. England and the crowd was a mere 24,00 that only half filled the smallish, old fashioned National Stadium in Ramat Gan. As I entered, the stadium was on its feet for Hatikva . It's an uplifting sight: the perfect green pitch in the floodlights, the razzle dazzle of the flag-waving majorettes, the thousands of roaring spectators (some holding a sign welcoming the Estonians to 'Israhell' ).
Shuffling into my seat I checked out my neighbours . To my left, a dubious looking guy in a long black coat smoking roll-ups who immediately offered me some garinim (sunflower seeds) and told his kids to sit somewhere else. To my right three dati teenage guys who looked like they would feel at home at the recent attempt to resettle the Homesh settlement http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/843360.html
Most of the other people in stand 4 (the more expensive seats) were just regular people though - a few kippot, a few soldiers and a decent sprinkling of flag-covered, face-painted kids, wives and girlfriends.
Since I know diddly squat, I furtively turned my cell phone into a radio and got a running commentary as we thrashed the lumpen Estonians by 4-0 .
Two of the 4 were scored by 17 year old wunderkind Ben Sahar who plays for Chelsea. It turns out that there's a controversy over Sahar. He's soon due to be called up for the army. That would set his promising career back,wasting 3 years during which he might have serve more effectively as an "ambassador" for Israel. On the other hand, what makes him more important than a potential scientist or a mechanic for that matter? Meanwhile, having slipped out at half- time for a naknikia (hot dog) and steadily spitting my way through my own packet of garinim, I was really getting into it. And each time Sahar scored, 23,999 people and I leaped to our feet in a shared moment of exultation. There is something ritualised about a soccer match. And as in churches and synagogues, there's a lot of joint standing up and sitting down. For more on the match:
The electric sign yells SHA'AR (GOAL) in vivid pink - click to see better.
And the latest generation of Israel supporters smells the oh so sweet and oh so rare whiff of victory. They say that the Israel squad has a promising future. I had fun. I should get out more.