Not that I am a football expert or that I follow the Premier league with baited breath, but when I found out that my Rosh Hashana present was a ticket to see Chelsea play against Maccabi Tel Aviv in London as part of the Champions League (complete with a Maccabi scarf!), I was so happy I jumped up and down. Coming from a family of hardcore merengues, some of my most tender and hilarious childhood memories include my dear dad ZL´ sitting at the dining table opposite the TV, carefully following each and one of the Real Madrid moves. The sign of the transformation about to follow would be his ears turning the colour of scarlet as soon as the ball was first kicked.
By the time he already owned a beautiful, spacious flat from which he could comfortably watch these games, my dad hadn´t kicked a ball in several decades. Not that this lack of sports practice prevented him from scrutinising every kick, jump and corner, directing the players with the zeal of a Colonel from the comfort of his chair. All the children, sitting on the soft sofa behind my dad´s chair and carrying white and purple flags and hats, would join this wild spirit, a sort of Napoleon of the Football Empire, that would possess my normally calm, kind and patient dad. On those Sunday evenings we would jump, scream, celebrate and shout in a way that no other Sunday has ever topped. Depending on how Real Madrid played, the evening would end up with a celebratory call to Telepizza, or with my mum recovering her 60s brick-sized machine to take my dad´s (bye, bye Napoleon) blood pressure — the only vestige of her days as a kind and efficient nurse in her crisp white uniform.
Going back to the Champions League 2015, by now it is no secret that Chelsea kicked Maccabi´s bum. Big time. 4-0. Yep. If you are interested on the technicalities of the game, there are plenty of much more qualified commentators who have written on it. What I wanted to tell you about, however, is not about our defeat on the stadium, but about how we also won (and yep, in a sense our victory was even greater).
We arrived to the stadium three hours before the game to find that 5,000 Maccabi supporters had flown in from Tel Aviv. Impressive, I thought! However, even if you added up the number of Maccabi fans who already live in London, we felt like a tiny group of yellow ants about to be swallowed up by a blue sea of Chelsea fans.
We started by having some pizza and beer in a small family pub where most people wore yellow T-shirts and flags. The atmosphere was excellent and in my broken Hebrew and their much better English I struck up conversation with many Maccabi fans. Nonetheless, as good as it felt to be part of the tribe, what put a huge smile on my face (apart from so much beer) were the Muslim Chelsea supporters sitting next to us. This father and his son asked if we had come from Tel Aviv, and even when we said no, they expressed their admiration at how many fans had come all the way from Israel just for a game. After a few jokes about how hard they´d kick Maccabi´s ass (or Mah-keh-baih, as they said!), we wished each other all the best for the game.
The cherry on top of my Rosh Hashana present was that we were sitting among the Maccabi supporters, and how vibrant, fun, crazy, passionate our little yellow section was! There was non-stop chanting, jokes, scarf waving, but what moved me the most was that which each goal that we had to swallow, the support only grew stronger. Many of the fans were Israeli, but there were also many Brits. Some of them wore piercings, a few sported kippot and tzittzit and I even said hi to our rabbi´s daughter. All of them kept cheering and singing, and I admit to getting goosebumps when we all sung Hatikva while showing the Star of David on our Maccabi scarves. Of course, the 4 goals were 4 pills hard to swallow, but what sweetened it all was something I had never seen in any other game.
I think we are all familiar with the fact that football players make a freaking lot of money for, well, kicking a ball. Not only that but they are admired by many and treated like stars. So all we´re asking for is that, well, they do kick the ball and score some goals. And when it doesn’t happen, I’ve seen many fans leaving the match before it’s even finished. Fair enough.
4-0. So a couple of people got up and started making their way out. 4-0. Fair enough. Did I just say fair enough? Nope, the yellow ones didn’t think so and they all started screaming and singing that “whoever gets up and leaves now is red”, which I was told was a clear reference to Hapoel, their rivals. So these three people came back and all the yellow fans kept cheering, clapping, singing, jumping, until it was minute 88, 89, and finally 90.
What happened next was that as soon as the game was finished, both the Chelsea team and their supporters left. Both were the big champions in the match. But then I saw something amazing take place before my own eyes. All the Maccabi supporters stayed and clapped for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 minutes, long after the blue section was empty and every blue player had left. They thanked Maccabi for getting this far, but just wait, because I had never seen a whole team (yellow, by the way) walk together to their fans and applaud also for several minutes, just to thank them for their support.
In spite of the massive kick-ass defeat, we all left proud and elated, feeling that after all we had also been champions. When I got home I still had this silly smile on my face, which apparently is for no reason, but it´s the smile I get when I feel like things are alright and I think that my dad had been proud. For a Wednesday night, it got really close to a good old Sunday in front of the TV.