Friday, April 17, 2015

MC Sports Report: Never Give Up!‎

Welcome to Israel and the beaches of Tel Aviv.
Two weeks before we went to Israel I opened my favorite Football App, ESPN FC, and learned that Maccabi Tel Aviv was at home on Monday night, April 6. We were only going to be in Tel Aviv for three nights on our way to Jerusalem, and that date worked, so I was excited about the chance to see Israel's oldest and most decorated football club.

We were in Nicosia and my Cypriot phone plan allowed me to make a few international calls so I found the phone number for the Macabbi Football Ticket office and gave them a call. Got through without any problem and learned this was the biggest match of the year. #1 Maccabi vs arch-rival #2 Hapoel Be'er-Sheva, No chance to get a ticket. Sorry sold-out!

Undeterred, I sent an email to the club office and pleaded my case. I probably mentioned that I write a blog and that somehow it would make sense if I could attend and write about the match. I also sent emails to our Airbnb host in Tel Aviv as well as our host in Jerusalem asking them if they knew how I could get a ticket. No joy.

When we arrived in Tel Aviv I started asking everyone I met, including the Taxi driver from the airport how to get a ticket. Still no joy.

The next morning, Monday April 6th, we were on a Free Walking Tour of the Old City of Jaffa so I asked the Tour Guide. She had no clue but took me into a little Tabac/betting shop before the tour started and asked the owner how I could get a ticket. Turns out that a group of men were sitting around a table filling out stacks of Keno cards, or betting cards or who knows what. Her question started a conversation between the men, the shop owner and other patrons, all in Hebrew of course. Before long a man sitting at the table told our tour guide that he was planning on going to the match. He didn't have a ticket either, but if I would meet him back at the Tabac shop at 8pm I could go with him to see if we could buy tickets from a scalper. His name was David.

As in all things in life, the harder it was to get a ticket, the more I wanted to go to the match. Since David's offer was the only one I had, I decided to go for it. I came back at 8:00 pm as requested and found David and the three other men still sitting at the same table filling out the same forms. I'm not sure what they do all day but apparently that's a day's work for David and his friends.

My friend David made it all possible. Thanks.
David's English was very limited but we soon set-out on foot for the short 10 minute walk to Bloomfield Stadium. The match was set to start at 8:45. Our first stop was behind the visitor's section. David thought we'd most likely find tickets from fans of Be'er Sheva, but as it turns out no one was selling.

So, we walked to the other side of the stadium where the Tel Aviv fans were pouring in. David dove into the crowd of men and started looking for sellers. My assignment was to stay right behind him and not get lost. By now it was 8:20 pm and even I could see buyers and sellers. It is legal to buy and sell tickets so transactions were pretty much out in the open yet still discreet.

That's David in the white/gray shirt working the crowd looking for tickets
David told me he was only willing to pay 100 NIS (New Israeli Shekels) which translates to $25. I set a budget of 150 NIS. As things started to heat-up, David reported that tickets were be offered at 300, 400 and even 500 for a VIP ticket. It was now 8:30 pm and I could feel the level of activity and anxiety rise as fans streamed into the stadium and the crowd outside was shrinking. (The whole experience made we want to contact Planet Money and suggest they do a story on the supply/demand curve for scalpers and buyers in the final minutes leading up to kick-off.)

At 8:35 pm David decided that he could not find a ticket within his budget and he said he was heading home to watch the match on TV. I thanked him for his help and we said our goodbyes. Off he went. A moment later I turned around and somehow made eye contact with a guy who said, in English, he had a ticket for sale. I offered 150. He accepted and that's when I started to panic because David had been telling me all night that I needed to be aware of fake tickets and if I bought a ticket I should only pay the seller once I was inside the gate.

Security check. One more stop to go.
I wasn't sure what to do next. That's when I looked-up and saw that David hadn't gotten that far so I yelled for him. Somehow he heard me, turned around and I waved frantically for him to come back. He did and for a minute or two he and Rory (my seller) conversed in Hebrew. It was now 8:37 pm and David said I should take the deal. He headed home and I  followed Rory towards the gate.

Just below the lights are floor-to-ceiling metal turnstiles
Rory showed the guard his tickets (actually two club membership cards) and in we went. I thought that was a good sign, but that was just the pre-check. The noise from inside the stadium was getting louder by the minute. The match was minutes from starting and the crowd surged forward doing the Israeli push 'n'shove leading into the metal crowd barriers and toward the security guards. I still had my money in hand. I looked at my watch and it was 8:39 pm and there were at least 100 guys in front of us. Eventually, we got to the head of the line, were quickly frisked and directed to the full-body turnstiles where Rory gave me a ticket to put in the scanner. I was nervous and put the ticket in the wrong way. Red Light. One of the cops saw what I had done and turned it around. The light turned green and in I went! Rory was right behind me and a moment later we were spit out into the stadium. The field was right in front of us and the players were filing out onto the field. The place was electric and the noise was deafening. Yay! I did it.

Looking across the field just before the match started, Maccabi colors are yellow and blue.
I got out my 200 Shekel note and offered it to Rory. He fumbled in his wallet and feigned something about he didn't have the right change - "did I have another  50 so he could give me 100 back?" The adrenalin was pumping and I wondered if he was going to take my 200 +50 and slip off into the crowd but instead he dug a 100 Shekel note out of his wallet and handed it over. Whew!

At that point I remember saying something like, can I sit with you? He mumbled something that I couldn't understand and before I could say anything else he disappeared into the crowd. I was so excited to be inside that I was not thinking clearly. That's when it dawned on me that the match was really and truly "sold-out". Yes, I was in the stadium but without my "friend" Rory I had no place to sit because it was all reserved seating and he'd taken back the card I used to get in. I had no idea where I should sit. In a matter of 30 seconds I went from feeling pretty clever to feeling stupid - now what? 

The match was just about to start so I looked for an open seat, someplace, any place. Of course everyone was standing so it was hard to even identify a seat at all. I spotted one low down near the pitch. Oops, the owner suddenly appeared out of nowhere. I decided to head up the stairs thinking maybe I could find a seat near the top of the stadium. Got there. Saw a couple of empty seats and quickly realized they were "sight obstructed" by the press box and girders. New plan.

Bloomfield Stadium seats 14,400 - In Hebrew אצטדיון בלומפילד
Went down a few rows and tried to blend in with a group but moments later a guy using some sort of international sign language, or Hebrew or both indicated I was in his seat. Damn. Another plan.

As I headed back down the stairs I noticed a seat on the aisle in row 21 that seemed empty but everyone was still standing so it was hard to tell. The referee was about to blow the whistle and start the match. In desperation, I tapped a young man on the shoulder who was standing next to the aisle and asked if he spoke English. No. That's when I tried the international hand signals and gestures to "ask" if I could sit next to him. For whatever reason, by the grace of God or some other higher power he indicated "yes" and he moved over a little to allow me to stand next to him in, what I learned later was seat 15. Whew! Thank the Lord.

Ended-up in Row 21. Note all the sunflower seed shells. Soon to be banned at Israeli stadiums.
The whistle blew and the match got underway! My shoulders dropped and I said a silent prayer of thanks. I had made it - but I started to worry that someone would come at any moment and claim their seat. There was nothing I could do about that so I focused on the match and was swept up in the emotions and excitement that filled the stadium.

The 2,000 Be'er Sheva fans were restricted to one end. The other 12,000 seats (including mine) were filled with screaming Maccabi fans who desperately wanted a win and the three points that would guarantee them the League Championship for a record 21st time.

They didn't have to wait long because in the 3rd minute, Maccabi scored and the place erupted and  the fans went crazy. Before I knew it, my seatmate, Avi Haccoun, was giving me high fives followed by a huge bear hug. I was an official fan!

Avi Haccoun saved my bacon.
From there, things settled down. I think it was about the 20 minute mark that I finally relaxed and told myself that if someone was going to claim "their" seat they surely would be here by now. That's when I looked around and realized I had one of the absolute best seats in the house and once again felt incredibly blessed to be a part of a football match a world away from Seattle.

At halftime it was still Macabbi up 1-0 but Be'er Sheva (Sister City of Seattle) came-out fired-up for the 2nd half and drove-in the equalizer in the 46th minute. Boom! For the next 30 minutes the match was played evenly by both teams but the pressure rose as the clock headed to full time and Maccabi scored off a rebound in the 79th minute and again in the 83rd to go up 3-1 and sealed the deal.

It is impossible to get a good photo from the stands with the light levels on the field. I was there!
I celebrated the win with Avi and my other new-found friends in Row 21 and made my way out of the stadium. It was 11:00 pm and Google Maps told me that it was a straight-forward 3.5km walk home so off I went. It was a beautiful night and along the way I home I joined two Macabbi fans walking the same direction. Their English was good so I was able to engage them in a post-match analysis, get answers to questions about the Israeli First Division, their thoughts on the recent Israeli elections, Netenyahu, Obama and Iran before arriving at our Airbnb apartment. A night well spent!

I was home by midnight thinking just how fun it is to experience the local culture in each country through football. Might not be for everyone, but it's a win/win for me.

Until next time.



  1. I also sent emails to our Airbnb host in Tel Aviv as well as our host in Jerusalem asking them if they knew how I could get a ticket. No joy.
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