Hapoel Katamon leading bold new approach in Israeli soccer
Fan-owned club uses sport to unite communities
Club admired by Barcelona and Werder Bremen
Eitan Perry does not stop singing.
It’s a Monday night in Jerusalem, the players are on the pitch and Perry goes through his well-rehearsed rendition of songs and chants.
“Yalla! Yalla Hapoel!” (Come on Hapoel!) the 33-year-old shouts in support of his team, while fellow spectators look on with a certain amusement.
There would be nothing out of the ordinary about Perry’s enthusiasm – except this football match is between the club’s Under-12 girls’ team and a side from Netanya, with an attendance of 20 as well as a couple of rather disinterested dogs.
Admired by European champion Barcelona and a partner with top-flight German side Werder Bremen, Hapoel Katamon is Israel’s first fan-owned club and a team very much on the up.
Its ability to bring together Arabs and Israelis within the local community in one of the world’s most volatile regions has been one of the city’s greatest success stories.
The team in the red and black of Katamon, a neighborhood in south-central Jerusalem, brings together girls from Jewish settlements with those who live in the impoverished eastern party of the city.
“In Jerusalem, it’s such a political atmosphere. What we’re trying to do hasn’t been done before on such a scale by a professional club and it’s working,” Perry tells CNN.
“We have kids from settlements coming together with Arab players from East Jerusalem.
“We had one occasion where the parents from the settlements didn’t want their Jewish kids playing with the Arab kids – but the children told their parents, ‘We want to play, they’re our friends.’
“Even outside of the program, those kids are playing football on a pitch between the settlement and the city – that’s unheard of for Israeli and Arab kids. It shows what football can do.”
Hapoel’s girls trudge off the field after a 6-1 defeat, but it’s an achievement to have even made the game at all.
Those from the Jewish settlement of Efrat in the West Bank say goodbye to their friends, who will travel back towards East Jerusalem and the traditionally Arab part of the city.
Hapoel is certainly unique within Israel. Formed in 2007 by people frustrated with the management at Hapoel Jerusalem and another local team, its senior side has made its way up through the leagues.
Last season, it won promotion from the third tier and will now play in the national league, one division below the likes of city rival Beitar Jerusalem and Maccabi Tel Aviv, which won its 21st Israeli title.
Hapoel, funded by its members and a number of local businessmen, holds elections for committee positions; four of the seven seats are open to supporters.
Last season the club had 520 members, each of whom paid around $320 to join. Membership gives them a vote at elections and a season ticket to games.
Perry recently relinquished his place on the committee after seven years, having overseen the club’s rapid rise both on the field and off it. He says committee decisions are discussed until they are passed with unanimity.
Hapoel hosts a number of different programs for the local community, with players leading training sessions for local schoolchildren, educational seminars to ensure homework gets done and free tickets for those who participate.
Twice a week, around 100 children from all over Jerusalem – Arab and Jewish – receive coaching from first-team players.
Whether it be the goalkeeper or star striker, the players are all involved. It is remarkable given the club’s lack of resources – it does not even own its own training ground but instead has to rent from the local council.
At another venue a five-minute drive away from Hapoel’s neighborhood sports facility, the humdrum of noise increases as a side from Abu Ghosh – an Arab village better known for its hummus rather than its brand of football – takes on another local team.
The mix of Hebrew and Arabic fills the air as the teams begin to show off their skills on the concrete court.
Hapoel hosts tournaments for such teams from local schools and villages from some of the poorest neighborhoods, while it also recently adopted a disabled team after hearing that the players involved were being bullied by rivals in their league.
“We are the only club in Israel who has a clause in the contract of the players that they have to do a certain number of social work projects,” Perry says.
“The training sessions, they’re brilliant for the kids. They get to work with the players and then on matchday they get to watch them in action, some will hold their hands when they walk out onto the pitch.
“It’s one big family and it shows you the power of when fans can run their own club.”
The kids must enroll in the educational program alongside the football too, completing homework before being allowed to play.
They also receive free tickets to matches – a popular incentive.
Hapoel is often seen as a contrast to Beitar Jerusalem, its illustrious neighbor, which draws more nationalist fans.
Last season, Beitar was fined and docked points by the Israeli Football Association because of racial abuse by some of their supporters.
In its Europa League defeat at Belgian side Charleroi earlier this month, some of its fans were heavily criticized for violent behavior and more racist chanting. The club’s owner, Eli Tabib, was so disgusted by the incident that he immediately put the club up for sale, while one of the team’s sponsors withdrew from its deal.
CNN contacted Beitar Jerusalem for comment on their work in the community and the comparison to Hapoel, but has yet to receive a reply.
“[Hapoel] Katamon is like a team from a parallel world,” Ouriel Daskal, a leading Israeli sports writer, told CNN. “It is owned by their supporters, it’s sustainable, democratic and open to all races and religions, of which there are plenty in Jerusalem.
“It also invests in the neighborhoods around the club. Even FC Barcelona has been impressed by the community programs.”
“These guys are special, they learn from all over the world and in my modest opinion, these guys should be everyone’s second team – if not the first.”
Hapoel hopes its inclusive approach, characterized by using corner flags emblazoned with the colors of the rainbow, will tempt more liberal-minded people to pull on the red and black shirt.
Its work has already won admirers from across Europe, including Werder Bremen. The Bundesliga team has already invited Hapoel officials to Germany to discuss their ideas.
It marks an incredible rise for a club which has risen through the leagues after starting from the very bottom of the football pyramid.
“When Hapoel Jerusalem went out of the league, there were around 70 of us at the final game,” Perry recalls.
“We knew we were not only losing our football club – we were losing our voice.
“As fans we had to fight to ensure our messages were not lost, especially in Jerusalem, which is such a political city.”
The rebirth of Hapoel Katamon has been one of Israeli football’s more positive stories, though the next chapter could prove even more exciting.
The club is planning to build its own training facilities, and is hopeful that with the right investment and marketing it can become one of the best-supported teams in the country.
At the moment, Hapoel Katamon hosts its home games at Teddy Stadium, home of Beitar, but Perry has big dreams for his club.
“To find space to build in Jerusalem is very difficult if you’re looking to make a new stadium,” he says.
“Perhaps we’ll have to move just outside but I think we are going in the right direction.”
Pausing for a moment, he takes a bite of his falafel wrapped in a laffa bread, soaked through with tehina, and points towards a group of children wearing the black and yellow shirts of Beitar.
“You see those kids?” he asks. “One day, I dream that we will see children walking around Jerusalem in the red and black of Katamon. It can happen.”
Then he goes back to his falafel, and smiles.