A Ride Through West Jerusalem Football History
Jerusalem is a city of contradictions and conflicts. Uri Levy takes us on a journey through its old football pitches, depicting the stories of Jews and Arabs coexisting in the early days of the British Mandate, the developments of Israel’s Right and Left wings, and the radical escalation in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Line number 77 was accelerating. Rush hour traffic in Jerusalem is heavy, but the driver was zigzagging between lanes like a professional racer. Even in the small streets of the Bukhari neighbourhood, the bus was taking turns at 70 miles per hour. I was calm; I knew where I would get off. I was searching for a piece of history.
Jerusalem is a city of contradictions and conflicts. According to some, Jerusalem is at the heart of the major modern conflicts. It is holy to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, and it is claimed by both Israel and Palestine as a capital city. This religious nationalism associated with the city is one of the reasons Jerusalem is at the core of the Israel–Palestine conflict. This conflict has an impact on every aspect of the city life, including football.
After the 1948 war between Israel and the Arab armies, this area was part of the seam line between the new country and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. In 1967, when Israel conquered the eastern parts of Jerusalem and the West Bank during the “Six Days’ War”, this region was settled with a large Jewish population. Nowadays, the neighbourhood is inhabited mainly by Orthodox Jewish families.
I got off the bus and walked by a boys’ school. I noticed a muddy and improvised bus parking lot behind it. I felt as if I knew the place. And then I saw it. Black and white rusty metal bars, two posts and a crossbar—a goal.
The British Police, the Hasmoneans and the Bukhari Neighbourhood
The school and parking lot are actually located between the remains of Jerusalem’s first official football pitch. The pitch was inaugurated in 1926, back in the days of the British Mandatory Regime in Palestine (1920–1948), and served two local clubs—Maccabi Hashmoneans Jerusalem and the British Police team. Together with Hapoel Jerusalem and St. George, a Christian-Anglican College team, they made up Mandatory Jerusalem’s first football clubs. The first official match of the Eretz Israeli Football Association’s National League was a derby between Maccabi Hashmonean and Hapoel in 1931, and was concluded with the former hammering the latter 8–0.
Funny, I thought while taking some photos of the place. This dump is basically one of the cornerstones of Jerusalem’s Jewish football history, and now it is a bus parking lot.
Football games first took place in Jerusalem during the Ottoman period. Arab students and academics who studied in Syria, Lebanon, Istanbul or Europe, together with European Jews who immigrated to the area before World War I, were responsible for importing the game to the region. With the arrival of the British administration in Palestine in 1920, the game gained momentum and became increasingly popular among the locals. Since 1921, cup tournaments between British, Jewish, and Arab teams were played regularly. In the 1928–29 season, Hapoel Jerusalem managed to win the Ragheb Nashashibi Cup—a tournament named after the Arab mayor of the city at the time.
In the same year, an official football association for Mandatory Palestine was established, and a combined national team founded, with British, Jewish, and Arab players. This structure didn’t last long, as Palestine’s football competitions were divided into separate associations in 1931— the Eretz Israel Football Association and the Arab Palestine Sports Federation. Both associations functioned separately since the mid-thirties, and matches between Jewish and Arab teams were held very rarely, if at all. The Arab players decided to quit the Mandatory Palestine National Team and Association due to political issues and the growing tension between Arabs and Jews. Until the end of the British presence in the area in 1948, one would struggle to find even a handful of instances of successful cooperation between the Arab and Jewish football entities. It’s a shame, I said to myself, as I cast a final glance at the tacky ex-football pitch—they could have assembled a great football team together. I crossed the road, and hopped on the 77 bus, towards the city centre, and towards another piece of Jerusalem’s football history—the YMCA stadium.
I arrived at the YMCA stadium, or at least what’s left of it, which includes an old wall made of Jerusalem’s stones and a part of the ticket booth. YMCA was the legendary home of Beitar Jerusalem, the yellow and black club of the town, and one of the most significant clubs in Israel’s history.
Beitar was founded in 1936, as the football branch of the revisionist Zionist movement of the same name. During the British rule, the club was banned a few times due to terrorist acts committed by certain club players against the British regime. Such protests against the establishment went on to become one of Beitar’s main characteristics throughout the years.
Until the late seventies, the club wasn’t a major one, and usually played second division football. Beitar fans were mainly from the lower socio-economical classes of Jerusalem, believing in right-wing ideologies and protesting the social discrimination against Arab-Jewish immigrants by the Israeli government. YMCA was their fortress, where they felt recognized and connected. They terrified their opponents and encouraged their fans to be blindly and passionately loyal at the YMCA grounds.
The big shift began when the club won its first trophy—the Israeli Cup—in 1976. YMCA became a tough place to play at for any visitor team, and Beitar won two more cup titles in the mid-eighties. The club won its first championship title in 1987. Ironically enough, in that season they didn’t play at YMCA because a local astrologer advised the club to change their home pitch to the Bloomfield, which is in Jaffa.
Despite a short stint with relegation in the early nineties, it was then when Beitar started to establish itself as a serious power in Israeli football. Names like Eli Ohana and Uri Malmilian, two of Beitar’s biggest icons, defined the new most popular club in Israel, which was also an institution for the Israeli right wing in football.
I took my eyes off the camera, and looked around me. The famous tower of the YMCA building was still here, but the pitch was gone. Now the place was a luxury housing project for foreign residents. This place saw so many important moments in Israeli football, I thought. It was the home of the club with the biggest fan base in Israel. I started to walk towards Lincoln Street and had another look at the scenery. The last match in YMCA was a Jerusalem derby, Beitar vs Hapoel, in 1991. Despite being Beitar’s traditional pitch, Hapoel won 1–0 thanks to an 81st minute goal scored by their striker Netzah Mesubi, who sent the Yellows to the second division.
“Everything is from the Skies”, said a yellow and black sticker that was stretched out on an old public mail box at the intersection with Keren Hayesod Street. I took no. 77 again, this time towards an important place in Jerusalem’s red side history—Katamon.
Katamon is a historical neighbourhood in Jerusalem’s western part. Few of its houses, buildings and streets go back to the 14th century. It gets its name from a still-existing Greek orthodox monastery that’s situated in the quarter, and the area was controlled by Mamluks, Germans, Templars, and Turks. The Israeli independence battles took place in several locations in the neighbourhood, and there are dozens of walls with bullets signs. From the corner of Emek Refaim and Rachel Imenu streets, one can see what used to be the historical home of Hapoel Jerusalem football club—the Katamon Stadium.
Hapoel was founded in 1926, and was a branch of the Jewish socialist movement. The red and black team was one of the firsts to play organized football in the region, took part in the first ever EIFA league fixture, and reached the Palestine Cup final in 1943 (losing eventually to the Royal British Artillery). After a few years playing in YMCA, the club moved to Katamon in 1955 and played there until 1982 when the stadium was demolished in order to make room for Katamon Gardens—a real estate project that still exists there. I walked by the huge wall, went inside the garden and took a look around. There still exist tell-tale signs that it was a football pitch once. The shape that of the huge green garden surrounded by the buildings seems to conform to the measure of a normal field. I try to imagine where the centre of the field was placed. It’s hard to tell now.
For almost 30 years, Hapoel was the leading club in Jerusalem. Their top season was in 1973, when the club finished in 3rd place and won the Israeli Cup—the team’s one and only top-level title ever. Tzvi Single, Nahum Ta-Shema, Tzion Turgeman, Ali Ottoman, and all-time top scorer Eli Ben Rimoz were the faces of the team’s golden age in the sixties and seventies.
After leaving Katamon in the eighties, something went wrong with Hapoel Jerusalem, and the club lost its city rivalry with Beitar. Coincidentally or not, Israel as a state went through a big change at the exact same time. After 30 years of a left wing rule, in 1977 the first right wing government had been chosen and Mapai, the labour party, moved aside. Hapoel, who were the sports branch of the socialist movement “Ha-Histadrut”, began to lose their impact in the streets, especially in Jerusalem.
I lit a cigarette and thought about the correlation between the downfall of Hapoel Jerusalem, and the Jewish Israeli Left. As Mapai and the Histadrut became irrelevant in Israeli politics and social life, their support in the team was reduced. The voice of Hapoel and the commune life of Jewish and Arabs became irrelevant in the city.
Hapoel was always a team that cherished the coexistence of Arab and Jews, and some of its big stars were Arabs, mainly from the near village of Beit Safafa. Players like Ali Ottoman, Amer Salman, Hamoudi Salman, and Mousa Salman were all indispensable members of the club.
I sat on the grass, took one more photo, and suddenly remembered Hapoel’s last significant season, 1997–98. I was eight years old when I saw the team lose to Maccabi Haifa agonizingly in the extra time of the State Cup final. From then on, it was a downward spiral for the club.
The sun began to move west and I knew it was my time to catch the number 77 to the south if I wanted to make it in time to capture modern Jerusalem’s football temple—the Teddy Stadium.
Teddy Kollek was the mayor of Jerusalem for 28 years. He was an outgoing labour party personality, loved by the majority of the city’s population—Jews and Arabs alike. One of his first moves after Israel conquered East Jerusalem and the West Bank was arranging a provision of milk for the Arab kids of the city. He spoke openly about keeping Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, but protected the Muslim population’s religious and social rights—a stand that made him enemies with the Israeli right wing and the Jewish notables of Jerusalem.
Before he lost the municipality elections in 1993, he completed the plan for a brand new 14,000-seater football stadium for the city’s two clubs—Hapoel and Beitar.
The stadium named after him was opened in 1991, and became home for the city’s clubs in 1992. For Beitar, Teddy Stadium was a huge push forward. The club won two consecutive championships titles in 1996–97 and 1997–98, and gained its famous nickname—“The club of the country”. The club won the double and another championship title during the first decade of the 21st century. For Hapoel, on the other hand, things worked quite differently. The club was relegated to the second division in 2000, and has never managed came back to Israeli first division football since. The team was even thrice relegated to Israel’s third division and faced a horrific financial situation, thanks to the bad management of the club’s owners—two local contractors.
Teddy was renovated twice and now it is a lucrative 34,000-seater stadium. It hosted the 2013 U-21 UEFA Euro final between Spain and Italy. In contrast, Hapoel and Beitar are pretty far from their glory days.
Hapoel underwent a huge crisis between fans and management leading to the establishment of a separate Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem, a fan-owned club. It started in the fifth division and now plays second-division football. The new club, named after the iconic stadium, has initiated an impressive programme of social activities in a few of the city’s toughest and poorest neighbourhoods—Jewish and Arab alike. Katamon is working hard for healthy club-community relations. The club wears black and red stripes like the traditional uniform of Hapoel Jerusalem, and has steadily climbed up the league, now playing in the same division as its original club— Hapoel Jerusalem. The derby between the two is currently a fierce rivalry, pitching similar teams against each other. Both the teams are left-wing oriented and both dress in red and black. While one has the club’s tradition and history, the other has the fans and the famous club culture.
On the other side of the city, Beitar also lost its prestige and faced a fan crisis. The club fan base became more and more connected to extreme right movements, leading to more and more racist behaviour in the stands of Teddy. Beitar is under constant criticism due to the fact that the club does not sign any Arab or Muslim players. Several attempts have been made to do away with this policy, but each time they have been rebuffed by racist fans. All these reached its peak in 2013, when the club signed two Chechen Muslim players. La Familia members, the club’s Ultra group, reacted to this with burning hatred, huge protests, racist chants, and collective abandonment of the stadium after a goal scored by one of the Chechens—Zaur Sadayev. In addition, the crowd burnt the club’s facilities, leaving very few souvenirs and memories from the club’s history.
All these reached its peak in 2013, when the club signed two Chechen Muslim players. La Familia members, the club’s Ultra group, reacted to this with burning hatred, huge protests, racist chants, and collective abandonment of the stadium after a goal scored by one of the Chechens—Zaur Sadayev. In addition, the crowd burnt the club’s facilities, leaving very few souvenirs and memories from the club’s history.
After the Chechens left, Beitar’s dominant owner Arcadi Gaydamak left too, and so did a lot of its fans. Those fans established Beitar Nordia—a fan-owned club that began two years ago in Israeli fifth division, and this season completed its promotion to the fourth tier.
The original Beitar, surprisingly enough, finished the Israeli Premier League in 3rd place, while the original Hapoel Jerusalem escaped relegation to the third division just by the playoffs.
And Teddy? He is a witness of the greyish present of Jerusalem’s football scene.
I climbed a nearby hill to capture a few pictures of Teddy. The wind was strong and it was pretty cold.
As you can probably guess, next to me on this hill, there was a huge upper-class real estate project, called “Holyland”. It was hard to find the right spot for photos, as this concrete monster literally blocked the view from every angle. I looked at Teddy, and saw the outskirts of Beit Safafa. This Arab village used to be known as a “Hapoel neighbourhood”. A large number of fans and a few of the team’s best players came from this village. Not anymore. In recent years the team’s popularity has declined due to the progress of the local village team Arabi Beit Safafa, promoted this season to the Palestinian second division.
It is sad, I thought. Football used to be a connection between Jews and Arabs, between the city’s disputed sides.
This bus trip I took in Line 77 shows only one part of Jerusalem’s football reality.
There is another football scene that takes place every weekend on the Palestinian side—in A-Ram, in Isawiya, in Mount Olives, in Al-Am’ary. Faisal Husseini Stadium, the Palestinian National stadium, is located in A-Ram, a village in Jerusalem’s outskirts, only a 15-minutes’ drive from the city centre. From there, things look different and probably have another explanation. But I’ll leave that for my next bus ride on number 281 that goes to Ramallah.
Jerusalem in 2016 is a complicated place. A unique and diverse cosmopolitan city, divided between east and west, with a visible and invincible wall in between.
The Jewish and Arab populations of the city live in two intense, violent and parallel realities. Patrolling armed forces are a sight. Political instability hurts Arabs and Jews alike. It could take the form of a terror attack in the middle of the day, an ongoing desertion by the authorities, deep poverty, or simply random racist police brutality. It’s as if Jerusalem’s football scene, and its four main clubs, all emphasize the different approaches to the matter, each one in its own way.