Football is the most viewed sport in the world. If you tell that to the average North American sports fan they would probably say “yeah I know, everyone watches the Super Bowl.” But that’s American football. Millions of people tune in to watch their favourite NFL team and hundreds of millions of people tune in to watch whoever is performing the half time show. But the original football, or soccer, is taken in by billions. The FIFA World Cup is the most viewed event in the world. Soccer is the biggest global phenomenon, even if it isn’t the most popular sport named “football” in the world’s second and third largest countries by size.
Israel, like the majority of the world, is extremely passionate about soccer and I have been lucky enough to witness that first hand. Over the past few weeks I have been interning with the Hapoel Be’er Sheva football club, one of the top soccer teams in the Israeli Premier League, the top soccer league in Israel. This has been made possible by the amazing program Onward, which places students from North America into internships related to their interests or fields of study.
My main role with the team has been translating their website from Hebrew to English, in the hopes of expanding the fanbase. I’ve also had the opportunity to meet the players, coaching staff and management team and sit in on various press conferences. I had no idea what to expect going into this internship. I never thought that on my first day I would immediately be introduced to the team and then have the chance to watch them practice and spend time with young fans of the team who had just had their Bar Mitzvahs. I also never expected to then immediately be shown the locker room and all the training facilities. For someone who loves all kinds of sports, this was a dream come true.
For the past three seasons Hapoel Be’er Sheva has finished in first place and was named the champion of the Israeli Premier League. Unfortunately this year they were not as successful. However, they still managed to finish the playoffs ranked third in the league which bought them a ticket to the Europa League. I was able to attend the penultimate game of Hapoel Be’er Sheva’s playoffs and this game helped them secure their spot. The game had an incredible atmosphere and the fans’ devotion to the team was clear. I’m no stranger to passionate fanbases. I’m from Montreal where people live and breathe hockey. Regardless of the place or time it’s almost impossible to avoid chatter about the Montreal Canadiens. At a Canadiens game you’ll hear cheers and chants throughout the match. Similarly, in Be’er Sheva the fans enjoy serenading their team and there is even a specific group that goes to all the matches and shows their support by dancing shirtless. I’ve been to a good number of Canadiens games but I can’t say I’ve ever seen that. Maybe it’s the weather? We don’t have 47°C days during the hockey season in Montreal.
To be honest, I didn’t expect to encounter that kind of passion. Montreal is a unique city where the history of the Montreal Canadiens is basically painted into every street corner. The fanbase is so devoted that a player’s suspension once caused a political riot. While there is an MLS team in Montreal with a growing fanbase it has not yet reached that same status.
Upon arriving in Be’er Sheva, the sister city of Montreal, the serenity of the city immediately became apparent. If Montreal and Be’er Sheva were meant to be twins then it would have to be of the fraternal sort, as the bustling, metropolitan feel was only inherited by the Northern sibling. Despite its more quiet nature, Be’er Sheva has a rich culture, similar to Montreal.
This calm and quiet introduction to Be’er Sheva in no way prepared me for the rambunctious fanbase of their beloved soccer team. Despite the distance and the differences in language and weather the passion for sport is universal, another sibling connection between these two cities.
I immediately started learning about the history of Hapoel Be’er Sheva, which has overcome every obstacle possible to reach the top of the Premier League. One of the main values of the team is inclusion. Every aspect of life in Israel is political and that’s hard to ignore so it’s amazing to see a team in the middle of the desert made up of people from all kinds of backgrounds that preaches acceptance and tolerance. This is all made possible by the owner of the team, Alona Barkat. Not only is Alona a successful business woman and team owner, but she has also began a career in politics. Israel is lucky to have a powerful woman with her values advocating for equality and tolerance. To be a woman who not only exists within what is perceived of as a world of men, but one who has had such tremendous amount of success is an amazing accomplishment. On top of that, Alona happens to be extremely kind and welcoming. Her passion and love for not only the team but the community as a whole is clear and truly inspiring.
Getting an inside look into a professional sporting team is an experience I will never forget and I am so grateful to Onwards for making this all happen. This experience has also reinforced my love of sports and has shown me that soccer is far more than just a game. In Be’er Sheva, and in the Negev as a whole, it is part of the community. This team is made up of players of different races and ethnicities yet they are all equal in the eyes of the fans. In a country where conflict always seems to be right around the corner, somehow there is peace on the pitch for a couple of hours each week. Inside the stadium it is warm and accepting, regardless of the political climate outside.