By Kevin Koczwara
Soccer is a global game that brings people together, or so we’re told. Kids across the world pick up the game, playing in fields, on side streets, empty lots or in some cases docked barges or refugee camps. It’s a game that can unite people. It can bring about a democratic revolution in a country like Brazil.
When I was in the Netherlands a few years ago, I stayed in the home of Erwin Brugmans, who was working to connect Jewish and Moroccan communities in Amsterdam through soccer. He helped create a tournament between the two groups, which was followed by a communal kosher and halal meal. The goal was to have the two sides meet each other in person and experience each other’s culture, to help create a dialogue and bring the people together.
The darker side is that soccer can also separate people, pitting cities, religions and even friends and family against each other.
Cities like Liverpool are divided by the sport. Family and friends are split up by who they support — Everton, the blues, or Liverpool F.C., the reds. In a city like Glasgow, Scotland, fans are separated by belief and the battles between the Protestant-leaning fans of Rangers F.C. and the Catholic-leaning fans of Celtic are well-documented.
But, as seen in the film Forever Pure, in Israel it’s even more complicated. Politics play an important role in Israeli soccer. Clubs across the country separate themselves by their political ideology and supporters carry that persona as a badge of honor.
“There are several Israeli clubs that associate themselves with political movements,” said BBC World Football Correspondent and freelance journalist Raphael Gellar in an email. “Hapoel Tel Aviv have always been to the left and are proud of their heritage as a club that was backed by Israel’s trade union. They have waved anti-fascism, anti-racism and pro-refugee banners at several matches throughout their history and several prominent labor politicians have supported them. They welcome anyone into their club and believe in co-existence.”
“Beitar Jerusalem are the opposite,” Gellar continued. “They have been associated with the Likud movement and several nationalist organizations. Their ultra [fan] group La Familia have chanted anti-Arab slogans and waved Kahane* flags at matches. The club has a policy not to sign an Israeli-Arab player because they fear the response from the crowd.” [Meir Kahane was head of a very extreme right-wing, ultra-nationalist party that was eventually expelled from Israeli government; he was assassinated in 1990.]
Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Tel Aviv’s biggest rival, meanwhile, had right-wing fans earn worldwide attention after unfurling a banner with Donald Trump on it that said “Make Maccabi Great Again,” and another that said, “Refugees Not Welcome.”
— Tottenham Hotspur-US (@Spurs_US) February 9, 2017
For Hapoel Tel Aviv, whose crest includes the hammer and sickle and boxer, all representing the worker, they responded in kind by unfurling a banner that said, “Love Hapoel, Hate Racism!”
(In French but you get the idea)
But nowhere is politics more prevalent than when Beitar Jerusalem (featured in Forever Pure) plays Bnei-Sakhnin, the only club in the Israeli Premier League based in a majority Arab town. Supporters of Bnei-Sakhnin have waved Palestinian flags in the past and the team is made up of mostly Israeli-Arab players, something that Beitar would never dream of doing. The rivalry is so heated that no fans from the away team are allowed to travel to support their team when the teams play.
More from a must-read Vice piece:
Sakhnin’s top supporters call themselves “Sakhnin Ultras.” Like La Familia, the Sakhnin Ultras are occasionally stirred to controversy. Recently, they lifted two signs reading “Jerusalem is ours” and “Police are whores.”
More Israel Club Crests
As part of the culture, each team has their own crest, or logo, and each means something different. Some crests are arbitrary and rather new, while others date back years to when the club was initially formed and represent something about the creation of the team, like Hapoel Tel Aviv’s hammer and sickle, which represents socialism and the working class, or Beitar’s menorah, which represents the city of Jerusalem.
With all of that, I decided to investigate a few of the more interesting if less political logos in Israeli football to try and find out where they originated.
Hapoel Be’er Sheva
Formed in 1949, Hapoel Be’er Sheva’s crest has a large chimney in the middle that represents the city of Beersheba’s municipal building, its version of a city hall. “It’s something traditional, it was always in the logo,” a team spokesperson said. “It’s a symbol of the city and the team represents the city of Beersheba, represents the southern district of Israel.” Next to it is a boxer surrounded by a hammer and sickle, which usually represents Hapoel and its working class union/left-leaning fan base (“Hapoel” basically means laborer or worker, and shows up often in Israeli sports), but Be’er Sheva officially has no political ties. “We have nothing to do with politics. It’s only football. We use the game as a tool for our community,” said the spokesperson.
Ashdod is one of the biggest port cities in Israel and the club’s dolphin logo references the sea. Ashdod formed when the two clubs in the city, Maccabi Ashdod and Hapoel Ashdod, merged in 1999 after financial struggles had crippled both clubs. The dolphin was part of Maccabi’s crest and the clubs decided to keep it and their fans embraced the moniker, calling themselves the Dolphins, and the team introduced a dolphin mascot with cool sunglasses named Skipper. The club is known for its investment in its youth team and local players, with 50 percent of its team coming from Ashdod.
Haifa’s identity changed in when Robi Shapira bought the club in 1994. Shapira, a businessman who made his money in the fishing business in Nigeria, remade the clubs’ identity in 1994. Copying the look of Italian club A.C. Milan, one of the global giants in soccer, Shapira changed the team’s colors to red and black and adopted Milan’s black and red striped jersey, which was an easy transition because the two clubs shared the same shirt sponsor: car manufacturer Opel.
Four years later, the team won its only league championship. Shapira also made the shark the club’s logo as part of the franchise’s own connection to the ocean, with Haifa a port city, and the shark the ocean’s most vicious predator. Sadly, Shapira took his own life in 2001 as financial troubles mounted. The team is now owned by Israeli businessman Yoav Katz.
Kevin Koczwara is a journalist based in Worcester, Mass. He’s written for ESPN, The Boston Globe, Esquire, Gear Patrol and is a regular contributor to Howler.