Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Ottoman Derby

"It's true we did not know much of Hapoel Be'er Sheva before the draw, we heard only about teams from Tel Aviv, but after the last few weeks - there is no detail that we do not know about this excellent team.” The speaker is Beşiktaş manager, Şenol Güneş. The venue is the press conference at the Turner Stadium in Be’er Sheva, Israel, yesterday, ahead of the knock out clash between the two clubs on Europa League’s last 32. In recent weeks, the Turkish club's scouts milled games at Turner and well-studied group of Barak Bakhar.
Güneş is maybe aware of the dangerous players of his rivals, but if he was interested in history, he probably had heard of Be’er Sheva, the city and the team, long before he heard about the teams from Tel Aviv.  Then, he would have understood that his team’s visit this southern city has also a fascinating historical significance.

A team of its city. Hapoel Be'er Sheva (Sharon Bukov©)

At the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman Turkish Empire, then advanced stages of collapse, decided to expand the imperial presence in its peripheral districts of the Ottoman Palestine-Eretz Israel. Be’er Sheva, has been an attractive destination for investment. The aspirations to neutralize the control of the Bedouine tribes in the area, together with  the need to strengthen the southern border with Egypt (that was controlled by the United Kingdom at the time), were the security reasons for the city’s establishment. The fact that Be'er Sheva was sitting on a strategic crossroads economically, stimulated the Ottomans to establish a regional trading center connecting the Gaza Strip, Gulf of Aqaba and Hebron, with the new city in the middle of it. Already in 1877 the pedestrian town was recognized as a city, and in 1900 the town of Be’er Sheva was officially declared by the Governor Kemal Pasha as the new county capital of Be’er Sheva district. Thus, Be’er Sheva became officially the first (and only) city the Ottomans planned, and us, in Palestine-Eretz Israel.

At the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman Turks saw Be’er Sheva as a city with a high strategic importance. Much more than Tel Aviv, that’s for sure.

In October 1915, as part of the railway project Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, a railway station was inaugurated in the city of Be’er Sheva.
The station had an important goal - to be a central point in the connection between Ismailia, Egypt to Damascus, Syria. In addition, due to the strategic location, connecting the port of Gaza emerging commercial center in Be'er Sheva, then to Hebron and then to Amman, in order to connect it indirectly to the Hejazi railroad tracks - leading from Istanbul to Mecca.

In the First World War, the station has become a key logistical point of the Ottomans and the Germans, which moved supplies, weapons and troops between the Egyptian front and the Syrian rear, into the depths of the Empire. In the frenzied regional reality of the time, you could say cautiously that Ottoman Be’er Sheva had a significant role, and the Turks also intended it to be a main artery in the efforts to revive the empire.
Now, back to football.

Be'er Sheva's Ottoman train station 1917 (wikimedia©)

Hapoel Be’er Sheva dazzled Europa League group stage after knocking out Premier League team Southampton. The club is on a positive run in the past years, slowly progressing and becoming a major power in Israeli football.

The club is owned by Alona Barkat, the first woman in Israel to own and run a football club, and last season won its first championship title after 40 years. The club is playing in the brand new Turner Stadium, a 16,000 seat lucrative venue, that with the “Ultra South” group that puts up tremendous displays, the place offers one of the best atmospheres in the Europa League this season.

For years Hapoel Be’er Sheva was counted as an underdog. The city itself was a deemed periphery in the middle of the desert, who suffered from minimum budgets and discrimination from the Israeli authorities who preferred to invest in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Four years ago the club almost relegated to the second division, but in a durable process the team has made a brilliant journey, won the championship and went far in Europe.
Among the notable players you can find the Nigerians Anthony Nwakame and John Ogu, Israeli-Palestinian star Maharan Radhi, Maor Melikson, Maor Buzaglo, and the captain Elyaniv Barda.
Turkish champions Beşiktaş is one of the three largest clubs in the capital. While Galatasaray was always considered the old elites club of Istanbul, Beşiktaş, Similarly to Fenerbahçe, is a working class club.

While the narrative of Fenerbahçe is national and patriotic, the social political nature of Beşiktaş tends more to the left. The senior ultras group's club called "Çarşı”, whose members boast quite a few anarchist symbols. "Nowadays, those clubs are huge and have millions of fans, so the political and social identities blur a bit, but at the level of management and club members you can feel those characteristics greatly. These certainly aspects of personality and identity features of Beşiktaş," says Emre Sarigul, a Turkish football journalist and the Editor-in-Chief of Turkish-Football.Com site. "Respect and sportsmanship are the pillar of the philosophy of Beşiktaş, and in turn, also social and communal responsibility of the club towards his members, his supporters and the residents of the Beşiktaş district in the city," he adds. The club operates in the familiar "socios" system like many clubs in the world, and its leaders get elected in democratic elections being held between the members of the club.

The Black Eagles are a mega club (

The club coordinates activities and competing in about 14 different sports including chess, table tennis, rowing and e-games. Stadium Group, Vodafone Arena, has 41,903 seats and is considered one of the world's avant-garde venues.
Beşiktaş has an impressive squad. Among the most prominent names at the clubyou can find Portuguese European champion Ricardo Quaresma, Brazilian Anderson Talisca, local boy Cenk Tosun and Dutch trouble maker Ryan Babel. Adriano, Demba Ba and African champion, Cameroon’s Vincent Abubakar, will not play due to injuries and suspensions (respectively).

Despite the fact that Beşiktaş is a luxury club that has been around for 114 years, and that at his disposal there’s a budget 10 times higher than Hapoel Be’er Sheva’s (125$ million vs 12.5$ million, respectively), towards the meeting between them this evening, there are minor similarities between the two teams. Both champions, both coming from the first place in their leagues, and both come in a problematic momentum. The Turks are with two defeats in a row in all competitions, and the Israelis are unstable and presenting negative football.

Beşiktaş’ nickname, the "Black Eagles" (Kara Kartallar), there’s a legend. The story says that in 1941, when the team was in the title race, during the second half of the match against Sulaimaniyah, at every attack, there was a clear call in the stadium: "Come on Black Eagles! Attack Black Eagles!". This call has become a hallmark of that season, which ended with the championship title. Over the years, this call has become the club's official nickname.

In a similar but different way, Be’er Sheva devoted fans can attest that last season, when the team grabbed the championship, also in Turner Stadium there was a repeated call, but at different moments of the game – Ama Ya’amik. This call isn’t a new thing, but during the 2015/16 season became familiar with the club, and developed as broad phenomenon of "protecting" the team from black magic, superstitions and the “evil eye”. It became a symbol and a folklore of Be'er Sheva city, highly identified with the football club.

It is not the first time of Beşiktaş in Israel. In the summer of 1999, they played Hapoel Haifa for the Champions League qualifiers and were eliminated after two draws thanks to away goals. They played Maccabi Tel Aviv and won twice, in the Europa League in 2011. In fact, Beşiktaş has not lost to an Israeli club. Never. Not Israel, not in Istanbul.
Now let’s go back to history class.

A true Ottoman Derby with a heavy historical background. Be'er Sheva vs Besiktas

Unsurprisingly the grandiose plans of Sultan Abdul Hamid II did not materialize.
With the evolvement of World War I, the Ottomans began to lose territories one by one, and the Turkish cavalry were helpless against West European guns. One of the most important battles in terms of the future of the region was decided in Be’er Sheva.
On the morning of October 31, 1917, General Allenby led an Egyptian expeditionary force-armed with British weapons to a surprise attack on the city of Be'er Sheva, and defeated the Ottoman army and its German partners, as part of the campaign on the Sinai Peninsula and the Land of Palestine-Eretz Israel.

The victory in Be'er Sheva paved the way for a general defeat of the Ottomans in the Levant, the transfer of control of the country to the British, and three days after the Balfour Declaration that changed the region forever.
Hapoel Be’er Sheva doesn’t have major chances against Beşiktaş. The Turks are a better, richer and has much more quality in their squad. Moreover, Be’er Sheva will probably lose.  But if Hapoel Be’er Sheva’s magic in the competition will resume almost 100 years since the last defeat of a Turkish team in the city, than the most Middle Eastern clash in the history of the Europa League, will be remembered as an unlikely Cinderella story for another century.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

10 Kicking Points from the 2017 AFCON in Gabon

The 2017 Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon is over. A good tournament football-wise and a fascinating sport event politically.  Here are ten points I took from the tournament which ended this Sunday in Libreville, Gabon.

Aristide Bancé and friends are celebrating a successful AFCON in Gabon (FIFA©)

Generational Change
Gabon 2017 tournament was conducted in the midst of a generational change in African football, from north to south and from east to west. This has affected the football level, especially in games of national teams that the average viewer is accustomed to see with mega stars that provide football displays.
Just like that Europe does not produce more Zidanes, Baggio’s and Laudrops, Africa no longer produce Jay-Jay Okocha’s or Kanu’s, nor Samuel Eto'o’s or Didier Drogba’s. And you know what? That’s actually fine. Football, like life, is changing. It is not less interesting this way.

One family who runs the country for decades; petroleum; Chinese; popular opposition and a lot of money on the table. This AFCON tournament took place in Gabon, a country in a deep but unseen political crisis that is only getting worse. Few months ago that nearly turned into a civil war.
The tension between the Gabonese opposition and ruler Ali Bono has affected even before the tournament started, and the empty stands at most of the games, which created an alienated atmosphere, were the biggest evident. If that were not enough, the Gabon national team, with superstar Aubameyang from Dortmund and a quite promising support crew with Mario Lamina from Juventus, broke to pieces in this political turmoil, which penetrated the dressing room and caused a rift between the players. Gabon became the fourth hostess ever in AFCON history not to qualify from the group stage. That’s not a good souvenir for Bongo, what so ever.

One of the
most overrated but still expected discussions in African championships is the one debating the identity of the coaches. This year, only four of the 16 coaches in the tournament were local Africans. Cisse in Senegal, Florent Ibenge of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pasuwa from Zimbabwe and Guinea-Bissau's Candé, have all done a great job with their teams.
 However, heads of states and associations still prefer foreign coaches to coach African national teams. The administrative and cultural effects of colonialism cannot disappear so quickly, and the issue of coaches is just one of them. If some of the governments of African countries are still begging for France and the United States to send troops and generals to conduct their territory resource disputes, then football coaches are small money.

Names Exist Only on Paper
Algeria and the Ivory Coast, who came to the tournament as the big favorites for triumph, completely shattered even with the quality players on their roster. The glorifications we tend to impose on players who play Champions League or Premier League football, is excessive and exaggerated. Often, the number of such players is not even indicating the quality of the team. The AFCON has its own rules, and we saw that significantly in the tournament.

Guinea-Bissau had a historic debut with an emotional and inspiring group stage; the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Fimbu dance  have thrilled everyone for four games until they ran into Avram Grant and the Ayew Brothers; Herve Renard’s Morocco showed excellent football, not less, despite injuries and absences; Cameroon the winner was the biggest surprise of all, but it deserves its own section. We’ll get to it right away.

The Refresher
The team that was playing the best football in the tournament was Burkina Faso. Powerful and organized defensively, fast, dynamic and creative on attack. Burkina Faso 2017 was the fulfillment fantasies of nostalgic fans of African teams like Nigeria 1996/1998, Cameroon in 2002 and Ghana 2010. The Burkinabe team was great fun to watch, and only a bad luck and one El-Hadary, had prevented them final appearance. Oh, and Aristide Bancé. What an idol.

The MVP and the Revelation are the Same Guy
Christian Bassogog. The 21 years old, who played in the second division in Cameroon, moved to a fourth division in the USA and today plays for Aalborg in Denmark, was invited to the team two weeks before the championship and simply burnt the grass. Technique, speed, strength , sacrifice, assisting, leadership and what’s not. He had it all and he gave it all. A true MVP. Simple as that.

Goalkeeper is a Profession
What haven’t been written on Egyptian goalie Essam El-Hadary. A 44-year-old (!), who became the first choice thanks to the injury of the other goalies in Egyptian squad, and became the oldest footballer in history to appear in a major tournament. He recorded a particularly heroic display in the semi-final versus Burkina Faso penalty shootouts. In the final though, he disappeared and was pretty weak, what influenced a lot on his team.

Ah ya Misr
Héctor Cúper and Muhammad Salah Egypt was a very strange creature that demonstrated a rare intensity on defense, while the attack did not functioned consistently well. In the knockout things got together, and the Pharaohs brought the element of deterrence back that was so missing in past years. Salah was great with two goals and two assists, El-Nenny was dominant and scored a beautiful goal in the final, and we’ve mentioned El-Hadary already. One thing is certain: No matter what country, no matter what stage, Hector Cúper is a loser. He had everything it takes to win the title, and again, it did not happen. I smoked one cigarette for him Sunday night.
See them at the World Cup 2018 in Russia? Hope so, mainly for El-Hadary.

Deserved Champions
A national team that eight of its stars refused to join the AFCON just few weeks before the tournament, that its first choice on goal is 21 from a reserve team in Spain, that its star playing in a small club in Denmark and its leader is at tiny Lorient from France, won the title. And not while playing ugly football. The opposite. A Talented, high quality, stubborn team, with great personal ability of each one of its player. Cameroon eliminated the hosts in the group stage, favorites Senegal in the quarter-finals, Ghana in the semis, put up a strike in protest over bonuses from the association, came to the final against mighty Egypt, and from goal down scored a beautiful goal with two minutes left to win the title. A worthy African champions that took part in a fascinating final, and won it. Chapeau.

There are many more names that deserve mention here as Junior Kabananga (RD Congo),  Jjukko (Uganda), Khama Billiat (Zimbabwe), Kara Mbodje (Senegal), Naim Sliti (Tunisia), Moukandjo and Oyong (Cameroon) and Mendyl (Morocco).

The Africa Cup of Nations that ended Sunday in Gabon was not a sexy and attractive sport event. It  have not attracted many viewers (not on TV and certainly not in the stands). But along with this, it was also a fascinating, mesmerizing and exciting football tournament. Football mixed with history, culture and politics, money and respect. Everything you would like to find in a tournament.