After having put Bursaspor in the spotlights yesterday, time to put the limelight on the other new face in the Champions League from the Middle Eastern region. Hapoel Tel Aviv qualified for their first ever CL, and thereby became the 3rd club from Israel to participate in the Champions League.
NOTE: to discuss the backgrounds of the club, it is inevitable some political elements are named. This article is written from a neutral point of view and not intended to make any political statement at all!
Israel has had a long but troubled history in football. The FA and national team were initially in the Asian confederation, they were even co-founders of the AFC and Israeli clubs did very well in early Asian club championships. The only time Israel was present at the world cup, in 1970, was after they qualified as a member of the Asian football conference. Political problems forced them to resign and after a long time of wandering, Israel was embraced as member of UEFA in the early nineties. Despite being geographically located in Asia (just like Cyprus which is also entirely in Asia purely geographically) Israel is now a full member of UEFA which means the local clubs can participate in the European club competitions. Initially with little success, the results of Israeli teams improved the last decade. In 2002, Maccabi Haifa became the first Israeli club to qualify for the Champions League group stages. Despite having to play on neutral foreign soil for safety reasons, Maccabi did far from bad and defeated Olympiacos and, sensationally, sent Manchester United home with a 3-0 defeat. After the first Israeli appearance in the Champions League, Maccabi Tel Aviv became the second team from the country to reach the CL, and last season Maccabi Haifa again went through the qualifiers to reach the main tournament a second time. Hapoel is now the 3rd club from the country to reach the highest ranked tournament for UEFA affiliated clubs. Prior to their Champions League debut, Hapoel however had already made some name for itself in the UEFA Cup/Europa League.
Let’s dig deeper into history and look at the backgrounds of the club. Hapoel was first formed in 1923 but disbanded soon enough. It was in 1927 the club really started off in its current form after a second restart and merger with another local team, this restart gave Hapoel the name and shape it has retained ever since. In these days, the present day Israeli state was not existing as yet, instead the area was ruled by the British. The club was part of the Hapoel sports association and tied to the Histadrut trade union, a very socialist organisation representing the rights of labourers. This earned the club its nickname "Workers" (an internet fan group even adopting the name "Red Workers") and lead to fans of other teams calling the Hapoel fans communists. The club also adopted the red colours and their emblem indeed does contain the hammer and sickle, which is a socialist/communist symbol.
The hammer and sickle which has been part as such in all logos throughout the existance of the club (the logos changed now and then but this element has always been in it):
Football in Israel is unfortunately hard to separate from politics. A lot of clubs are either named Beitar, Maccabi, or Hapoel. This indicates their political background. Beitar clubs (of which Beitar Jerusalem is the most famous and most succesful example) usually represent the Israeli right wing, and many if not most people within the movement are Mizrahi, Jews originating from other Middle Eastern countries. Maccabi clubs are somewhat neutral and more elitist, although some of the fans still don’t hesitate outing their political preference whatever they may be. Hapoel clubs ("Hapoel" is Hebrew for "Worker") represent the Israeli left wing, which includes the socialists and communists. Hence the red colours and socialist elements in logos of many Hapoel clubs. Fans tend to be recruited in labourers organisations, socialist organisations, kibbutzim, Ashkenazim (Jews of Eastern European heritage). Hapoel Tel Aviv is by far the most succesful Hapoel club and thus often seen as the sporting representative of the Israeli left (despite the existance of plenty of other, though less succesful, Hapoel clubs such as Hapoel Haifa, Hapoel Ra’anana, Hapoel Jerusalem, …). Only a minority of clubs in Israel are not named after one of these movements, examples being names such as "Ironi", "Bnei" (meaning "sons of"), "Hakoah" (Hebrew for "force") … Bnei Yehuda Tel Aviv, the mainly Arab-Israeli club Bnei Sakhnin, and Hakoah Ramat Gan being famous examples.
After this little bit of side info, let’s return to Hapoel Tel Aviv.
One year after its foundation the team reached the Palestinian Cup final (the football in the area, since no independent state existed yet at that time, was still ruled under the banner Palestine or sometimes Israel/Palestine under British rule, with the British police forces present having a very succesful football team in these days). Hapoel won the game 2-0 against Maccabi Hasmonean Jerusalem but due to fielding a player who didn’t have the right to play, the cup was shared between the two teams. Nonetheless, Hapoel had its first trophy, even when it was a shared one. In 1933-1934 the club won the double, including having won every single game of the league (then called the Palestine League) which was a quite unique achievement. Several more cup victories and local league successes followed, but the World War caused the league to be either not organised or abruptly cancelled halfway a season often the next years. It was also the last era when UK related teams such as the British Police or the Air Forces played a role of importance. Following the war, the British withdrew from the area and proposals for a Jewish state and a Palestinian state sharing the area were launched. In 1948, Israel declared its independency.
With the newly formed state of Israel, Israel also formed a new football association and league. In 1956-1957 Hapoel won its first championshop in the post-independence era, and in 1960 they won the State Cup (the national cup tournament) for the first time. Meanwhile Asia followed the example of Europe and started to organise continental cups for club teams. The first one being in 1967. The Asian Champion Club Tournament’s inaugural edition saw Hapoel enter to represent Israel, as they won the domestic league the year before. Hapoel only had to play 1 game in the tournament as several other countries either didn’t enrol a team or saw their representing team give forfeit. Thus, Hapoel was "bye" in every round until the final itself. In that final, held in Bangkok (Thailand), Hapoel beat Malaysian club Selangor FA 2-1. Aslim brought Selangor in front but with goals by Bursuk and Rachminovich on penalty kick Hapoel claimed the first edition of what you could call the Asian equivalent of the UEFA Champions League. Obviously when you are bye until the final this is not such a remarkable performance, but the statistic is there: Hapoel were the inaugural champions of Asia. City rivals Maccabi Tel Aviv won the second edition the year after. In 1970 Hapoel played the final again but this time lost to Iranian side Taj Club.
Hapoel by now (2010) won the domestic leag 9x, the State Cup 13x (note in both cases some of these date from before the independence of Israel) and the Toto Cup once. Internationally the inaugural Asian Club Championship in 1967 is on the list of honours.
In its entire history, Hapoel only played one season outside of the Israeli premier league. In 1989, ironically as defending champions, they finished bottom of the league, partially thanks to a points deduction for breaking some budgetary rules. The club however promoted back to the top flight the next season and have remained there ever since.
The biggest rivals of the club are city rivals Maccabi Tel Aviv and to lesser extent Bnei Yehuda Tel Aviv (with both they now share a stadium) and Beitar Jerusalem who are very fierce rivals mainly because of the backgrounds of both clubs (see above).
Hapoel moved into Bloomfield Stadium in 1962 and have played there ever since. The stadium is located in the historical neighbourhood of Jaffa, which is one of the oldest port towns. Bloomfield is now shared by no less than 3 different premier division teams, as Maccabi Tel Aviv moved to Bloomfield as well in 2000, and in 2004 Bnei Yehuda also moved into the stadium (even though the club originating from the HaTikva slum still maintains their stadium and offices in that area, the HaTikva stadium being used by second divisionist Beitar Shimson Tel Aviv as well). The stadium has a 17500 capacity. The Hapoel fans often form a red-coloured sea of people making a great atmosphere with chants and fireworks.
In the early nineties, Israel found its permanent football home in UEFA and Hapoel started to participate in UEFA sanctioned club tournaments. In 2000, Hapoel won the league and also defeated Beitar Jerusalem on penalties to win the cup as well ; however, they stranded in the Champions League qualifiers as they were beaten by Sturm Graz. Several UEFA Cup participations followed and especially the one in 2001/2002 was succesful. By eliminating Chelsea, Lokomotiv Moskva and AC Parma, the club reached the quarter final in which they were narrowly eliminated by AC Milan (losing 2-0 in Milan after having won the first leg 1-0 in Cyprus ; the game had to be moved there as Milan refused to travel to Tel Aviv).
The biggest European triumph was realised this year by qualifying for the first time for the group stages of the Champions League, being the 3rd Israeli club to do so (after Maccabi Haifa having qualified twice and Maccabi Tel Aviv having had 1 participation). It was however a very narrow call or Hapoel would not have even reached the qualifiers: after the end of the regular playing rounds of the reformed Israeli league (expanded to 16 clubs , then split in three groups of which the top 6 teams played each other again to determine the champions) they were quite far behind on Maccabi Haifa who seemed to be cruising to renewing their domestic title. But in the play-offs and with points reduced to half of the tally at the end of the regular season the gap with Haifa wasn’t so big anymore and Hapoel performed very strong in the play-off round. Still, they clinched the championship title in the most dramatic way, beating arch rivals Beitar Jerusalem 2-1 on the final day of the season with Eran Zahavi scoring the 2-1 winner in injury time. Without that goal, Maccabi Haifa had won the title. Winning the league in the last minute of the season in a game against a bitter rival ; needless to describe the euphoria experienced by the Hapoel fans that night? 🙂
The club had quite a dreamt-of season anyways as they also won the State Cup (beating Bnei Yehuda Tel Aviv 3-1 in the final) and reaching the second round of the Europa League as well after having won their first round group ahead of Hamburger SV, Celtic FC and Rapid Vienna (the latter two being eliminated). In that second round, Rubin Kazan (the Russian champions) were too strong. But back to this year’s Champions League adventure…
The beginning of this season lead Hapoel to the qualifiers for the Champions League. The route to the group stages was remarkably similar to the qualifying route of Maccabi Haifa the previous season. After having eliminated FK Željezničar Sarajevo 6-0 on aggregate, the next opponent was FK Aktobe from Kazakhstan. Hapoel lost 1-0 in the former USSR state, but turned it around at home, winning 3-1. The previous season, Aktobe was eliminated by Maccabi Haifa in the same stage of the qualifiers. In the last qualifier Hapoel drew… Red Bull Salzburg, who were also the opponent of Maccabi Haifa in last season’s Champions League qualifying play-off! Just like Haifa the year before, Hapoel grasped a win in Austria (2-3), in the return leg in Tel Aviv they brought themselves into troubles though as a mistake from goalkeeper Enyeama allowed Salzburg to take a 0-1 lead. The badly needed second goal for the Austrians didn’t come though, and in injury time Hapoel scored the equaliser again through Zahavi (the same man who scored the injury time goal against Beitar that gave Hapoel the domestic title a few months earlier). Hapoel qualified for the Champions League for the first time and I fear that both Aktobe and Salzburg would rather not be drawn against Israeli opposition again in the next decade 🙂
Hapoel will now face Benfica, Olympique Lyonnais, and Schalke 04 in the group stages. Getting the third spot that would lead them to the Europa League would undeniably be a success. On the other hand, the chances are slim that Hapoel would equal the "record" set by Maccabi Haifa last season when they were the first ever CL participant to lose all group games and not score a single goal.
The chances of such disaster are slim because Hapoel have quite a few players who easily score. There is Zahavi (the man of the important injury time goals), there is Itay Shechter who scored an average of more than 1 goal per game since joining Hapoel, there is Gil Vermouth (Belgians may remember him from his seasons with AA Gent before returning home to Israel), and there is Ben Sahar who joined Espanyol Barcelona last season and is loaned out to Hapoel now while still being under contract with Espanyol. So I am quite confident Hapoel will at least score goals, unlike Maccabi Haifa last season. The defense may be a bit less secure but nonetheless there is an important player here as well: Nigerian international goalie Vincent Enyeama, who played at the World Cup 2010 and who is notorious for scoring goals from the penalty spot (he is the nr 1 penalty taker for Hapoel).
Maccabi Haifa last year moved their Champions League games to the national stadium in Ramat Gan, which hosts over 41000 people but is known to be less good for acoustics and atmosphere. At the moment of writing this I am unsure if Hapoel will do the same in order to allow more people in, although I have not heard any rumours about moving out of Bloomfield yet. Bloomfield has less than half of the capacity of Ramat Gan, but the acoustics of the stadium are much better.
These are the Hapoel Tel Aviv fans during the Europa League game against Celtic in 2009 (2-1 victory for Hapoel):
The historical ties to the labourers organisation are far from forgotten by present day fans, as this picture proves (for more such images, see the UltrasHapoel.com site):