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Israeli soccer fans dream of returning to stadiums

Israeli soccer players have resumed training sessions and might even play again, but the fans are still kept away from the stadiums.
Maccabi fans cheer for their team prior to the second leg of the Europa league second round qualifier football match between Maccabi Haifa and RC Strasbourg at the Sammy Hofer stadium in Haifa on August 1, 2019. (Photo by Jack GUEZ / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel is starting to recover from the coronavirus outbreak and its return to normalcy is taking place gradually and cautiously. Hopefully, after the recent, difficult period of uncertainty, many Israeli fans will be encouraged by the return of soccer to the playing fields.

The Israeli Premier League, which was stopped March 13, will restart May 30 with the championship playoff games; the National League — the second division, which is below the Premier League — will also resume. On May 10, the players started training again, with the goal of holding two games a week; this way they will finish the league by the beginning of July. Under the current circumstances, however, the fans are not allowed to be part of the games and will be forced to view their teams on TV. The teams will face off with one another in front of empty stands and without the chanting and encouragement from their fans.

“Without a doubt this is a terrible blow for me — not to be able to cheer for my team from the stands,” said Idan Vaytzman, a faithful fan of the Premier League Hapoel Beer Sheva Football Club for the last 30 years. “I was very happy that they are playing again, but clearly it’s depressing that the games will have no spectators. Sure, I talk to friends and other fans and we all understand the decision under the circumstances. Still, it’s important to return to soccer, to get back into routine and normalcy; the situation in the state is starting to loosen up. We can’t keep soccer on the sidelines indefinitely.”

Vaytzman rarely misses Hapoel Beer Sheva games, both those played at home and away. However, he has no choice now but to accept the new rules. “Watching the Hapoel games on TV is not an easy thing to accept for a faithful Hapoel Beer Sheva fan like me. I have to think about it. Look, it’s not just about coming and then cheering for the team during the actual game. There is also the other stuff, like traveling to the games with friends, the other fans you meet or going out to eat together after the game. For us, the fans, soccer is a way of life.”

The question remains when the fans can return to the playing fields. Vaytzman doesn’t know if it will happen this season. “Letting everyone return is also a gamble. Still, we’re talking about sports, and people's health is more important. What's certain is that even after all the fans are allowed to return to the sports fields, not everyone will come. My friends and I will come, but I assume there will be others who won’t want to take any chances and prefer to stay at home.”

Gal Shure, a Maccabi Haifa fan, is more optimistic. “I really missed the games with their action and excitement. The last two months weren’t easy without soccer; it’s important that it starts again. All the fans are waiting for this,” Shure told Al-Monitor. “I travel all over the country and see places where things are starting to open up and people leave their houses more and more. The beaches are full of people, and so are the synagogues. If the situation will continue to improve, it's definitely possible that they will play only two weeks without an audience. Then, they will gradually bring back the fans, and if there won’t be a second coronavirus wave — God forbid — we will really be able to return to routine.”

The directives regarding sports in general, and especially soccer leagues, around the world are not unequivocal. Germany’s league restarted at the beginning of May without an audience, and Portugal is supposed to do the same this month. In Scotland, the league was cut short with the first rated group at that point crowned the champion of the season. In the Nethelands, the league was canceled without declaring a champion, and no teams were downrated or uprated from one league to another. In England and Italy, the teams have started practicing again, but it is unclear whether the leagues' games will restart.

This same uncertainty exists around the world and it is possible that the soccer season will end earlier than usual. “The situation in Israel at this point [with a low number of coronavirus carriers] is good when compared to the rest of the world. Ultimately, either we return to the playing field or end the season now and crown the world champion. As far as I’m concerned, the lesser of the two evils is not to attend the games. We want to see soccer and we need to end this game season properly. The decision regarding the title has to take place on the soccer field,” Shure said.

The return of the leagues, even without an audience, is significant and can drum up at least an estimated sum of 60 million Israeli shekels ($17 million) from the Israeli Sports Betting Council, TV broadcasts and sponsors. Ending the season now can cause damage of up to 150 million shekels ($42.5 million) in the highest league of Israeli soccer.

“This is a working system and it must continue working," Shure noted. "We can’t not play soccer and wait for the coronavirus pandemic to pass completely. Maybe our world has changed and there is no way to know what will happen to the coronavirus; maybe it will take a long time until cheering crowds return to the sports stadiums. So, no one will play soccer for years? Clearly, watching soccer on TV is not the same as being in a stadium and cheering the home team — but better that than giving up on soccer altogether. One thing is sure — even if I have to watch the game on TV, I will still jump up and down and be excited when my team scores a goal.”

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