Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem, the first soccer team in Israel to be owned entirely by its fans, made history on Friday by gaining promotion to Liga Leumit, the National League, Israel’s second division.
Katamon went a goal up in the very first minute and easily overcame bottom-of-the league Lod 9-1 to clinch top spot in Liga Aleph Darom (Third Division South).
In truth, the score line could have been much higher. But when news came through that Katamon’s only rival for the top slot that guaranteed promotion, Maccabi Jaffa, was struggling in its match against lowly Kfar Yona, Katamon slipped down a gear in order not embarrass Lod too much. (Jaffa ultimately prevailed 3-2, but that scoreline was not good enough to keep Katamon from becoming the division champion.)
All the tension had come ahead of the game with a dramatic announcement by the Lod chairman on Thursday night that his team, which hadn’t trained for 2 months and hadn’t received salaries for weeks, would fail to show up.
In the end the managers and players, following extreme pressure from the Israel Football Association, defied their chairman, and decided at the last minute to travel to Jerusalem. Never had this reporter seen a team so enthusiastically applauded merely for turning up.
As the goal tally increased, the East Stand at the capital’s Teddy Stadium rocked with noisy enthusiasm from Katamon’s fanatical supporters celebrating the team’s promotion to the professional leagues. More than 6,000 fans had turned up — by far the biggest attendance ever for a game in Israel’s lower divisions.
Less than six years after being established by a small group of fans, Katamon — with its goal of providing an alternative for Jerusalem’s soccer-loving public, built on fan-power, anti-racism and community outreach — will now take its place in Liga Leumit in the coming season. Its next ambition: making in into the top division — the Israeli Premier League.