Football's coming home... to Haifa

Israeli football legend Ronny Rosenthal on what Maccabi Haifa qualifying for the Champions League means to him


BERLIN, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 30: Tjaronn Chery of Maccabi Haifa controls the ball during the UEFA Europa Conference League group E match between 1. FC Union Berlin and Maccabi Haifa at on September 30, 2021 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)

September 01, 2022 13:50

It makes me incredibly proud to see the name of my first club, Maccabi Haifa FC, alongside PSG, Juventus and Benfica. This isn’t just a great moment for the club, but also for the whole of Israel and Jewish people everywhere.

For the home games, tickets will be sold out within days, but almost everyone in Israel will want to watch the matches live on TV. I’ll be in London so, unfortunately, like many others, I won’t be able to be at the games and will also have to settle for watching them on television. They will be massive nights.

Maccabi Haifa is such a great club with a fantastic new 32,000-seat stadium and the atmosphere there will be electric.

I started playing for Maccabi Haifa when I was around 11 or 12, which is pretty old by modern standards — nowadays kids are being signed up when they’re seven or eight — and I turned pro for the club when I was aged 17. I spent six amazing seasons at the club and loved every minute of it.

In 1984, we won the league title for the first time in the club’s history, then won it again the following year. Back-to-back titles and we would have won it three seasons on the trot, but we lost the final game and it slipped away. When I look back at that team, it fills me with pride.

We were a good, young side — fast and athletic, but the game has changed so much since then that I doubt we’d have been able to beat the current side. Football has evolved, like everything else, and today’s player is even faster, stronger and more athletic. It was almost 40 years ago and the game has changed. It’s no longer enough just to be talented.

So, this Maccabi Haifa team, how good are they? Well, they have dominated the Israeli Premier League for the past couple of seasons but obviously they aren’t going to be at the same level as PSG, Juve or Benfica.

Those clubs have some exceptionally good players. Look at Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar— they are top, top players who can make things happen on a football pitch. I’d describe them as complete players. Going up against them is going to be tough, there’s no hiding away from that, but no result is ever a foregone conclusion. It’s how football is, it’s why we watch it.

So what chance do we have of beating these giant clubs in our group? OK, I have to be realistic and say, in all honesty, probably not much. The other three teams, especially PSG, are at another level.

The difference between them and Maccabi Haifa is huge, so I think the best we can hope for is to maybe pick up a win against Benfica — no disrespect to them, they’re also a good side, but maybe the weaker of the three — and perhaps grab a couple of draws in other games. That might not be enough, but it could be.

The thing about football is that you never really know. For Maccabi Haifa, these group matches are like David fighting Goliath, and then having to fight another two Goliaths — twice! But as we all know, David won, so maybe Maccabi Haifa can also win.

The beauty of football, the reason we love the game, is that the outcome does not always follow predictions. I think once in every 30 times, the smaller club beats the big guys.

We have to hope Maccabi Haifa have can have at least one of those one-in-30 outcomes in these group matches and then maybe we have a chance. In football, anything is possible sometimes.

But whatever the results, there is no doubt that the qualification for the group stage and the calibre of the sides we’re playing is going to be a massive inspiration for children in Israel.

For those youngsters already playing, I hope the sight of these superstars coming to their country is going to make them want to keep playing and improve and for those that don’t play yet, I hope it motivates them to start.

It’s going to be all they’ll talk about for a while. I just hope they look at these players and want to start kicking a ball around. I believe these fixtures are going to make a lot
of people — young and old — very happy.

September 01, 2022 13:50

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