🔗 How I Stopped Being a Soccer Fantext Ido Perlmuter
First published: .
Note: in this text I will use the terms "soccer" and "football" interchangeably. I will often do the same with the terms "club" and "team", although they are not the same. A football club is a collection of football teams, starting from the lowest-aged team and up to the senior/adult team. People, as do I, will often use "the team" to refer to the senior team, and will often confuse the two terms, but the meaning should be easily inferable from context.
How I Started Being a Soccer Fan
My mother grew up in Tel Aviv's Ezra Neighborhood, a poor neighborhood to the south of the city, founded by Jewish migrants from Arabic countries. Her parents, brothers and sisters migrated to Israel from Persia, where Jews were starting to be less and less welcome. "Ezra" was formed directly to the south of the Hatikva Neighborhood ("The Hope Neighborhood"), which—for lack of a better word—was at capacity. Hatikva was home of the Bnei-Yehuda Tel Aviv football club (that's soccer for you Americans), one of Israel's oldest football clubs, formed in 1935, over a decade before the formation of the State of Israel. As such, my uncles were all big Bnei-Yehuda fans.
As the next generation of the family, all my cousins and I became rabid supportes of the club. My uncle took me to my first game in the club's stadium (simply named the "Hatikva Neighborhood Stadium") when I was four, but apparently I started running around in the bleachers, fell down and cut my head open, so it took a few more years until I was allowed to go back.
During those years, I would often spend my Saturdays at my grandma's house (my mother's childhood home) in the Ezra Neighborhood. I would sit outside, trying to discern what was going on in the stadium by the sounds of shouting emanating from of it. Whenever Bnei-Yehuda scored a goal, a loud, incredible roar could be heard for miles away, and I would get tingles all over my body.
Later on, I started going to games more frequently. For years, I went with my cousins. One of the older ones would drive us all cramped inside his old SUV, but he had the annoying tendency of leaving games early whenever the team was behind. Apparently, he was already in the pessimistic stage of Bnei-Yehuda fandom, while we were still in the optimistic stage. I can't tell you how many times we made our way to the parking lot, certain of a loss or a bleak 0:0 tie, only to hear that deafening roar because Bnei-Yehuda scored. Still, pessimism came for us in the end, too.
Bnei-Yehuda's first and only Israeli League championship came in 1990, when I was six years old, and unfortunately, I do not remember it. My earliest Bnei-Yehuda related memory is of me sitting in my uncle's living room in front of the television in early 1992, together with all my cousins, to watch a live broadcast of an away game. The match was just about to start, and the camera lingered on Bnei-Yehuda's new player from the USSR, Nikolay Kudrytsky, while the commentators were talking about what a good player he was. I can still remember the atmosphere of excitement in the room. Kudrytsky turned out to be one of the club's greatest players of all time, but his career was cut short just two years later, when he died in a car crash one night. The next morning, I remember friends at school coming to console me.
Kudrytsky's abrupt death was a major turning point for the team, which finished the '80s decade with its first championship, and assembled one of the country's best teams in the first half of the '90s, with homegrown players who would become Israel's biggest stars, such as Alon Mizrahi and Haim Revivo. Bnei-Yehuda of those years was a force to be reckoned with, and our home in the Hatikva Neighborhood Stadium was an intimidating pitch for any rival. In those days, we were very optimistic and self assured. For years, there was a long, large sign above one of the stadium's corners that read "Bnei-Yehuda Brazil", as the team was thought of as playing Brazilian-style football.
After Niko's death, however, the team went into a slump from which it never fully recovered. The second half of the '90s saw the team mostly fighting for its life in the Israeli Premier League. In the early '00s, the club was on the verge of collapse, and was eventually dismantled and transferred into private hands. After this, the team cemented itself as a mid-to-lower tier team in the premier league, and we all became the biggest pessimists you could ever find. Kudrytsky's portrait, painted days after his death on the stadium's wall, still stands to this day, although it was painted over terribly 15 or so years ago, to my dismay.
Ironically, it was the end of the '90s that really turned me into a rabid supporter (in Israel we say "ohed sahroof", which literally translates to "burned fan"), and the World Wide Web was a big factor in that. The Internet started entering Israeli homes in the '90s, and I was enamored by all the special-interest websites I could find there, so I wanted to create my own. The web was mostly static back then, HTTP was still at version 0.9, so all I needed to do was read a quick guide to HTML, whip up some pages, and host them in GeoCities. That decision affected the course of my life in a way that cannot be overstated, as will become clear further on.
My first Bnei-Yehuda website was in English. Later, I created one in Hebrew. The web was starting to become dynamic by then, and CGI was how it worked. I started using Content Management Systems to manage my website (I specifically remember "Newspro", and later "Coranto"), and back then they were all written in Perl. I started tinkering with their source code to modify them to suit my needs, taught myself Perl, and ended up becoming a programmer. In early 2000, I started working on the club's official website, and became a semi-official employee.
For ten whole years, that website was a big part of my life. We were putting out content on a daily basis, and I'm not talking about shitty Instagram posts, which is the only thing soccer clubs are doing these days. We had daily news about the club, weekly opinion texts from various authors, comprehensive statistics, an extensive encyclopedia (later: wiki), supporter spotlights, and a lot more. I've created an extensive video library of the team's games, going back decades, long before YouTube came along. That library was comprised—in large part—of videos I digitally encoded from various VCR tapes I recorded myself, or borrowed from other people, promising to return them in a week or two. I still have them.
We've also had an extensive photo gallery, and our own amateur photographers, who sent dozens of photos on a daily basis from the club's senior matches, training sessions, and even games of the club's entire youth academy. We've even had a manually translated English version of the website. Later on, a friend and I compiled an entire encyclopedia of the club's history, including detailed statistics, information on every player who ever played for the club, and more. I was somewhat regularly quoted in sports newspapers and articles about the club.
I cannot stress how much of my time I have poured into this website, and how important it was for me. Let me give you an example: after I received my degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Tel Aviv University as part of an army program, I started interviewing for various units and positions in the army. I had a particularly lengthy interview for a secret branch that seemed quite keen on taking me on. At the end of the interview, they told me that it's important that I understand that if I accept, then I would have to give up my work on the club's website. I replied in the way I often replied when people told me something I considered rude and inappropriate: I stood up and walked outside, not even saying goodbye.
The biggest thing, though, was the forum (a.k.a message board). I think it was around 2001 or 2002 that I installed Ikonboard, a Perl message board, and within a few months we've had one of the largest specialist online communities in Israel. The forum had thousands of supporters conversing around the clock. It constantly attracted journalists, rival fans, and others, and we used to love posting complete fabrications about famous players about to sign for the club, just to see how the journalists lurking in the forum would blindly report it in the next day's newspapers.
Eventually, I started modifying that message board just like I did the CMSs, in order to add various features, such as an annual fantasy league game that featured real prizes. We also used to host people from the club every once in a while to answer questions from the fans, long before Reddit invented the AMA format. We also organized many real-life meetups, most often to play soccer together. When the website was given the title of "Best Official Team Website" by Yedioth Ahronoth in the late '00s, it was great source of pride for me.
The website and forum made me quite well known within the fan community, and I made so many friends that to this day are some of my best friends. Here's a few more examples of just how big of a fan I was:
- When I was studying for my BSc between 2002 and 2006, I spent most of my time on campus in the library, either reading Perl books so I can improve the website, or working on the website through one of the library's computers.
- I used to go to the team's training sessions in the Hatikva Neighborhood Stadium in the mornings or evenings, just in case something interesting enough to put on the website happened. I've been to more of them than I care to admit.
- Between 2000 and 2010, you could count the number of matches I haven't been to on one hand. I've been to every league match, cup match and even training match, no matter the place, no matter the time.
- My friends and I were always the last to leave the stadium after matches. We would always go to the player entrance/exit after the games to talk/praise/blame/fight with the players/coaches/referees, and would ignore the cops pleading with us to leave so they can finally go home. Most of the times, they gave up and left before we did.
- I started driving in 2002, but didn't always have a car. For years, my buddies and I would scramble to find ways to get to the games. Many times we hitch-hiked with one of the team's players. Sometimes we would walk incredibly long distances, for hours and hours. One time we hitch-hiked back with a fan who dropped us off in the middle of the freeway. Another time we were stranded late at night with no ride from an away game after one of the players could only give us a ride back to the Hatikva Neighborhood. The buses were already over, and all the taxis wanted to charge us an arm and a leg. We were haggling with a cab driver when I noticed a bus that I knew went back to our city about to take the ramp to the freeway. That bus did not have a stop where we were, so I ran into the road directly in front of the bus and held up my hands gesturing the driver to stop. For some reason, he let us in, and we didn't even pay.
How I Stopped Being a Soccer Fan
If you came to a match in the Hatikva Neighborhood Stadium in the '90s or early '00s, before the team moved to Bloomfield Stadium, you would have found that the team's supporters were split into two opposing stands. The northern stand ("Gate 9", named after its main access gate) was referred to by fans as the "burned stand", as that was where the true fanatics would sit (well, stand; if you tried sitting there, you would get threatened), while the southern stand ("Gate 1") was where families and those seeking a calmer experience would sit. This allowed for two separate experiences: a hectic, emotional, violent, festive, profane experience on one side, and a subdued, quiet, mostly family-friendly experience on the other. For years, Gate 1 even had vendors sporting gigantic jerrycans strapped to their backs, moving between the rows, pouring cups of coffee, tea and sahlab for the spectators, lending to the easy-going atmosphere of the southern stand.
This splitting of supporter groups to two camps was not unique to Bnei-Yehuda, and neither to football. Back then, in football's heyday in Israel, it was very common, and you can still find it around the world, especially where teams have many supporters in regular attendance.
Bnei-Yehuda's Gate 9 fans of those days were a particularly rambunctious and sometimes notorious bunch, but mostly they were festive, for lack of a better word. They took every effort to provide a Brazillian-style show in the stands, just like the one supposedly going on down on the pitch. People were often garbed in orange and black—the club's colors—from head to toe, and face painting was common. Gigantic flags were constantly being waved, and the crowd was particularly known for its preference of using Mizarhi music for most of its vocal repertoire, in contrast to other teams' supporter's preference of importing European chants and songs.
Things, however, did not remain that way.
To begin with, as population grew, small clubs ironically lost their legitimacy. Israeli football moved from a large, eclectic collection of smaller clubs to a small, boring collection of larger clubs. Teams that represent small sections of the populace, such as Bnei-Yehuda, which represents a small neighborhood in Tel-Aviv (not to mention a poor neighborhood), have a large disadvantage compared to city-sponsored clubs and their deep pockets of money and far-reaching scouting networks (the larger clubs have football schools across the nation meant to find the next players, or prevent those players from playing for their local clubs). As the metaphorical borders between different neighborhoods blurred out of existence, the small teams also found it difficult to sustain a substantial fanbase. Young football fans no longer have a compelling reason to choose not to be fans of one of the only three good teams in the country. As such, attendance started to dwindle drastically for most of the country's clubs.
With attendance dropping from tens of thousands of regular visitors to a couple of thousands at best, and a couple of hundreds at worst, clubs could no longer offer two kinds of experiences, as it was not financially viable to open two balconies for so small a crowd, meaning the families looking for a calm Saturday outing were forced to sit together with the zany zealots trying their best to make as much noise as possible, and sometimes shout the most creatively vulgar insults towards the pitch. The burned fans used to have the power in the stands, but the Israeli Football Association wanted Israeli football to be less violent and more family-friendly, a feat they achieved by enacting new laws forcing clubs to pay for and post increasing numbers of police officers and security personnel in the stadiums, and give you an experience not unlike taking a flight, i.e. the experience of being treated as a criminal.
Similarly, as technology progressed, virtually every match in the top two leagues started being broadcast live, making it much easier for people to stay home, whereas earlier only the most "interesting matches" were broadcast. It also made it easier for clubs and police to spy on the fans using video cameras, banning those who they deemed as behaving inappropriately.
To somewhat offset the financial disadvantage of smaller clubs who simply cannot bring enough income from fans and club services alone, much of the budget of Israeli clubs today comes from the sports broadcasting agency, the sports gambling council, the national football association, and more. Club owners often like to boast that they are spending a lot of money on their teams, but that's mostly a lie. While ensuring a healthy budget for smaller clubs is an admirable goal that certainly helps them stay afloat, it actually backfired with regards to the fans, as the clubs no longer relied on them for most of their budget. Add to that the fact that clubs are forced to hire security personnel, and that the number of that personnel grows as the crowds grow, and clubs actually started viewing fans as a nuisance.
What I didn't mention earlier, was that I was also a member of the team's fan club for quite a while. Before the start of every season, we would sit down with the club's management to negotiate the price of subscription the fans would pay for that season (or "season tickets" for you Americans). I could see how the club's attitude towards the fans changed in real time, from year to year, until the club reached a point it simply refused to move an inch for us. "If it's not good for you, don't come, what do we care?", we were told by then owner Hezi Magen. The next year, the club refused to meet with us at all.
So small teams lost legitimacy (and fans), the experience worsened, and fans became a nuisance, but that's not all; I haven't even touched on the matter of the soccer itself. You see, Israeli soccer is shit. You know how people expect athletes to be role models? I don't know why that is, but let me tell you something: Until a few decades ago, Israeli soccer players were not career athletes; they had their own careers outside of soccer. They didn't (necessarily) play soccer for their livelihood, they played soccer out of passion. This means we may not have been able to stack up against European and South American countries, but we were proud of our players and admired them. Many of them were role models.
Today, though, soccer is the players' careers. It's what they do for a living, and they can earn a comfortable living by being truly awful athletes, so why make an effort? The games are fucking boring. And the players are no longer role models, they are social-media influencers who could hardly form a correct Hebrew sentence if they really tried. Many of them are womanizers, violent, vulgar, hostile towards their supporters, and really just a bunch of morons. I know I'm over generalizing and sound like an angry teenager, but I challenge you to try and get to know some of your favorite players better, you will find that the phrase "never meet your heroes" is particularly apt.
Many people still attribute the low attendance in soccer matches to vulgar fans who ruin the family experience. This is a common sentiment in the comment sections of Israel's collection of shitty soccer website. I wouldn't call this "complete and utter bullshit", but I will call this "utter bullshit". These people are not robbed of the nice, quaint, festive experience they are yearning for by zealot fans, but rather by the forced consolidation of these two types of soccer fans into one stand, the incredibly boring and low quality soccer being played, the TV broadcasts, the lack of parking, the shitty stadiums, the highway robbery of the concession stands, the players you have nothing in common with, the fact that you are not really welcome, and the understanding that your team's chances of doing anything meaningful are practically zero.
And what can I tell you, I'm close to turning 40, and going to games to support a bunch of 19 year olds who failed high school no longer seems that appealing to me.