The new season of Israeli soccer began last month and so far it’s been a season without too many surprises. Here’s the list of predictable things:
- The usual three suspects are at the top of the table, as HaPoel Kiryat Shmonah, Maccabi Tel Aviv, and HaPoel Be’er Sheva are bunched together within two points of each other.
- Eran Zahavi is leading the league in goals, having netted seven in just six games so far. Zahavi scored 29 goals last year, leading the league, and is on pace to best that total in the current campaign if he keeps up his Messi-like pace.
- Maccabi Haifa has had a disappointing opening run and currently sits in ninth place with a 2-0-4 record. After winning 7 out of 11 titles from 2000 to 2011, the past few years have been lean ones for the boys in green and white.
But the real news out of Ligat Ha’al this year is architectural in nature. After years of construction, a sparkling new stadium has opened at the southern entrance to Haifa: Sammy Ofer Stadium, or, in layman’s terms, Haifa International Stadium, the new 30,000-seat home of Maccabi Haifa (and their little brother HaPoel Haifa). After 59 years of residence at 14,000-seat Kiryat Eliezer Stadium, tucked into a tiny corner of downtown Haifa, the Yarokim finally have a world-class home that they can be proud of, and host European matches in. Until now, any Champions League match in Israel, or international fixture, had to be held in Ramat Gan’s National Stadium because it was the only facility deemed fit for international play by FIFA and UEFA. Now, not only can Maccabi host top-flight European matches in Haifa, but the national team can also play home games there. It’s a huge win for Haifa.
To put it in New England terms, it’s comparable to replacing the old Foxboro/Sullivan/Schaefer Stadium with Gillette Stadium in 2002, or going from a duct-taped 1989 Toyota Camry wagon to a tripped-out 2014 Escalade. It’s not even close. The sight lines, scoreboards, monitors, and transportation connections are convenient and state-of-the-art, the fan experience is vastly improved (check out this video), and it’s just a beautiful building.
If fate, karma, and intention coincide and you find yourself in Haifa this year on a game night, do yourself a favor and take in a match in the new stadium. You’ll get a healthy dose of angry fans cursing at refs from the opening whistle, raucous drumming and singing from the supporters, and, with any luck, a home victory from Maccabi as they try to make their way back to the top of the league.
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