At 3:30 on Friday afternoon, a largely unknown but passionately supported Israeli soccer team named Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem will take on rivals from Lod in the capital’s Teddy Stadium and attempt to make history: If it wins big, Katamon could well become the first soccer team owned by its fans to gain promotion to the country’s professional league.
Named after the neighborhood where the similarly named Hapoel Jerusalem used to play, Katamon was formed six years ago when a group of disgruntled fans, fed up after years of chronic mismanagement by a couple of wealthy businessmen, broke away from Hapoel Jerusalem to form the new team … with a twist: It would be owned entirely by its supporters.
Such a radical move had never been attempted before in Israeli soccer and it was an uphill battle, primarily financially, from the start.
Several thousand people turned out for Katamon’s opening game, but many pundits predicted the experiment would only last a few months. They were wrong.
Unlike Jerusalem’s biggest soccer team, Beitar — the only Israeli club never to have had on Arab player on its books — Katamon’s ethos is all about Jewish-Arab tolerance and a commitment to battle racism
The vast majority of Hapoel fans switched allegiances to the new team (though Hapoel still plays in Liga Leumit, the National League, Israel’s second division). And more than 400 Katamon member-fans pay an annual subscription fee, attend the annual general meeting, and elect the team’s steering committee. The fans vote on key issues, although the day-to-day running of Katamon is the manager’s prerogative.
In the course of its short, improbable life, Katamon has worked its way up through the lower leagues, season-by-season, against all odds, all the way to the Liga Aleph Darom (Third Division South). Now it finds itself on the cusp of a dramatic promotion to Liga Leumit.
Promotion would bring prestige, vindication, and a financial windfall. It also carries a political dimension: Unlike Jerusalem’s biggest soccer team, Beitar — the only Israeli club never to have had on Arab player on its books — Katamon’s ethos is all about Jewish-Arab tolerance and a commitment to battle racism.
Friday’s game is the final game of the season and the arithmetic couldn’t be tighter.
Maccabi Jaffa and Katamon have the same number of points at the top of the Third Division, with an identical goal difference. But Jaffa leads nonetheless, because it has won more games than Katamon.
The top team will go up as champion. The runner-up faces a nightmare playoff series. In order to win promotion, it will have to win two games against other top teams in this league, then defeat a team from the Third Division North, and then face a decider against a low-ranked team in Liga Leumit.
Katamon should easily overcome Lod, the bottom team in the division, which is in dismal shape. It is certain to be relegated, and even failed to muster 11 players for a game a few weeks ago. But even a comfortable victory may not be enough. To win its division and avoid the playoffs, Katamon must prevail in its game by more goals than Jaffa manages against its weak opponents, Kfar Yona.
Many women and kids come to Katamon games and there are also a fair number of religiously observant supporters, as the club has a policy of not playing games on the Jewish Sabbath
Katamon’s phenomenal rise hasn’t only been a breath of fresh air for Israeli football: It has succeeded in creating a genuine alternative for the soccer-loving public in Israel’s capital, which is dominated by Beitar Jerusalem.
Whereas Hapoel has always been associated with the Histadrut trade union federation and the political left, Beitar is linked to the rightist Likud. The rise to ascendancy of the political right in Israel in the 1970s overlapped Beitar replacing Hapoel as Jerusalem’s dominant football team.
As Hapoel declined, on and off the field, Beitar emerged as one of Israel’s big four clubs, along with the two Tel Aviv teams, Maccabi and Hapoel, and Maccabi Haifa.
Racist chanting was a common occurrence at Beitar games. This season many fans protested when Beitar signed two Muslim players from Chechnya, with a few extremists even setting fire to the Beitar offices. A hard core of supporters have made it clear that they will never accept an Arab wearing the yellow shirt of Beitar.
In sharp contrast, Katamon’s player of the season is Israeli Arab Samir Abed Alhi, a midfield dynamo who is probably the smallest player in the league. But what he lacks in height, he makes up for in passion, fighting for every ball and making incisive passes reminiscent of Leeds United and Scotland captain Billy Bremner in the 1960s and ’70s.
Anti-racist and anti-fascist banners can be seen at every Katamon game. The team’s anthem contains lines praising the hammer and sickle, the symbol of Hapoel, and “The Internationale,” the song of the International Communist Movement.
Katamon also places an emphasis on community outreach and runs a successful school league, bringing together teams from Jerusalem’s Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. Many women and kids come to Katamon games and there are also a fair number of religiously observant supporters, as the club has a policy of not playing games on the Jewish Sabbath.
Prominent among its supporters are quite a few celebs (such as TV current affairs show host Rafi Reshef and Labor MK Erel Margalit), some of whom have long since moved out of the city, but who grew up supporting Hapoel.
Overall, Katamon’s support is above and beyond anything previously experienced in the lower divisions of Israeli football. A relatively whopping 1,500 fans made the trip to Kfar Saba for an away game earlier this month (games in this division usually attract no more than 200), and the club is hoping for a bumper crowd of more than 5,000 on Friday.
Elevation to the Liga Leumit would immediately double Katamon’s budget, with extra income coming in from the football association, TV, lottery funds, advertising, and sponsorship.
Somewhat ironically, Katamon’s model of a democratically run football club has already caught on. In 2008, a second Israeli team in decline was taken over and revived by its fans. That team, fatefully, is Katamon’s rival on Friday for promotion to the professional big time, Maccabi Jaffa.
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