Israeli Sports

Moving into the international arena.

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Since the end of the 1990's, the team's rabid fans in yellow and black hadn't had much to cheer. But in 2005, billionaire Arkady Gaydamak bought the team and filled the roster with expensive players from Israel and overseas. Only 21 months after purchasing the club, Gaydamak found himself hoisting the Ligat Ha'al trophy--Beitar's first in nine years.

Founded in 1920 in Palestine, the left-wing political and social movement, Hahistadrut (the workers' federation), had its own sporting union called Hapoel (the worker). The first Hapoel soccer team sprang up in the 1920s in Jerusalem (Hapoel Yerushalayim) and became a natural competitor of Beitar Yerushalayim--a rivalry that still exists today.

As the Histadrut movement spread across the country, numerous cities adopted the Hapoel name for both their soccer and basketball teams. Today, a dozen Israeli cities field Hapoel teams in various professional soccer and basketball leagues.

Maccabi

Similarly, numerous cities across the country field soccer and basketball teams called Maccabi, named after the victorious Jews of the Hanukkah story. Started as an umbrella organization for all Jewish sports associations, the Maccabi World Union was created at the 12th World Jewish Congress in 1921. Maccabi Tza'ir, the Maccabi youth movement, was established to improve the physical and mental fitness of young Jews across the world. When Maccabi made its way to Palestine in 1933, it stressed sports as part of one's education, and promoted the establishment of youth and sports clubs throughout the fledgling nation.

Today, seven Israeli cities are home to Maccabi clubs that play in professional soccer and basketball leagues. Maccabi Tel Aviv is the nation's most successful soccer team, having won a record 18 national championships in that sport. The Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team also has a decades-long history of domestic dominance and international success.

Basketball: An American Influence

While most of Israel's soccer culture derives from Europe and South America, basketball's popularity is due to an American influence. It's not uncommon for the top Israeli basketball teams to recruit talented former American college basketball players who were not able to make it in the NBA. A number of these players have settled in Israel and have become fluent in Hebrew. Derrick Sharp of Maccabi Tel Aviv, for example, became an Israeli citizen and is married to an Israeli woman.

Israel's greatest international sporting successes have come in EuroLeague basketball, specifically with the Maccabi Tel Aviv team. Maccabi has won 5 EuroLeague championships, most recently in 2005. In that year the team featured a host of American stars--forward Maceo Baston and guard Anthony Parker who both were on the Toronto Raptors; former University of Illinois player Deon Thomas; and Sharp, who played at the University of South Florida.

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Gabe Roth

Gabe Roth is a communications consultant in Washington, D.C. While living in Ashkelon in 2005, Gabe was introduced to the Israeli sports scene by a group of teenaged Ethiopian immigrants, who were all better at soccer than he.