Cities

Homeview: Matchnight in Haifa

Maccabi Haifa fan Uri Bright has vivid, happy memories of his team’s Champions League exploits in years gone by. But now, 20 years later, he really knows how it feels when football comes home

On the shores of the Mediterranean, on the slopes of Mount Carmel, you’ll find the city of Haifa. It’s a place of many religions, beautiful landscapes, rich culinary culture – and plenty of hills. The best way to get to know it is to start at the top and work your way down.

You could begin in Merkaz HaCarmel, a neighbourhood where you can enjoy great views of the city when you’re not exploring one of its museums or relaxing in a café. From there descend the Gedera Stairway before stopping at Talpiot Market, full of fruit, vegetables and plenty more besides. Then there’s the downtown Turkish Market quarter, which comes alive in the evening with its bars and restaurants. But, for all the culture and charm that the city has to offer, hearts and minds were focused on but one thing in the run-up to 14 September: football. And when you think about football here, with no offence to Hapoel Haifa fans, you probably think about Maccabi.

Maccabi Haifa are the second most successful football club in Israel (behind their namesakes from Tel Aviv), with 14 league titles in the past 38 years. Some of the greatest players to emerge from these shores, such as Ronny Rosenthal and Eyal Berkovic, were raised at this club; famous Champions League names such as Avram Grant and Yossi Benayoun also had successful stints in green. In fact, an 18-year-old Benayoun was part of the team that beat Paris Saint-Germain over two legs in the Cup Winners’ Cup first round in 1998, scoring an 86th-minute equaliser in the first leg in Paris.

Maccabi Haifa manager Barak Bakhar (above); taking on Kylian Mbappé in Matchday 1 (top right); fans at the Sammy Ofer Stadium have been given plenty to cheer (right)

As we prepared to face that very team all over again a couple of months ago, Champions League excitement was in the air. Our last experience, in 2009/10, wasn’t the happiest: with zero points, we came bottom of a group featuring Bordeaux, Bayern and Juventus. So for those who could remember, the real nostalgia rush was courtesy of memories of 2002/03. 

That season was amazing. The group stage started with an unimaginable early 1-0 lead at Old Trafford – though it only lasted two minutes and ended in a 5-2 defeat. Next came a Yakubu Ayegbeni hat-trick against Olympiacos. And then, on 29 October 2002, perhaps our greatest European moment: a 3-0 win over Manchester United. Victory against Olympiacos in the final game of Group F would have been enough to get us into the knockout stage, but unfortunately that match finished 3-3. Still, what an experience.

The Mediterranean vibe of downtown Haifa

Now we had the chance to make new memories. With PSG in town, it was like a holiday in Haifa. Thousands of people took a half day, the bars downtown were filled with green-shirted fans and various drinking establishments around the stadium were packed with people a good four hours before the match. Then it came to one hour prior to kick-off, when the traffic near Sammy Ofer Stadium is usually at its busiest. Yet this time the roads were empty – because all 30,000 fans were already inside.

This wasn’t only about our electrifying team, built by coach Barak Bakhar, beating Olympiacos, Apollon and Crvena zvezda in qualifying. It wasn’t even the fact that the best footballers in world football were going to play against us. Rather, it was the prospect of seeing us playing Champions League football in Haifa for the very first time. In 2009 our games were hosted in Ramat Gan because our old stadium did not meet UEFA requirements; in 2002 our home matches were played in Cyprus, due to security issues.

“The atmosphere was unbelievable, but it wasn’t joy that I felt, nor was it happiness. I was stunned”

So there I was in the Sammy Ofer Stadium, sat in my regular seat. And in front of me wasn’t one of those weird, unimportant exhibition matches where the name and colours of a big club all match up, but unfamiliar youth players are wearing the shirt. No, this was the real deal: Messi, Neymar, Mbappé, Ramos, Donnarumma, Verratti and the rest, all here for a Champions League match. A game they needed to win.

Then came the 24th minute. Tjaronn Chery, our No10, scores a beautiful goal. It’s 1-0 to Maccabi Haifa. The atmosphere was unbelievable, but it wasn’t joy that I felt, nor was it happiness. I was stunned. I watched the replays on the big screen and no change – I was still stunned. I was still asking myself, “What the hell did I just see?” For many fans, that moment made them feel something close to what they felt against Manchester United 20 years ago. For younger fans, it was the first time they had ever experienced anything like it. And all of this in my home stadium, a 10-minute drive from my house.

It took Paris 13 minutes to bring us back to reality, with Messi’s equaliser, before Mbappé and Neymar sealed the win in the second half. But it didn’t matter, because football is not just about the final score. It is about those special moments, the great memories that keep bringing you back to the stadium time and time again. And that goal against Paris Saint-Germain was probably the best of them all.

Until Juventus rolled into town at the start of October. By then, though, the focus was on Maccabi Haifa and the points we needed. No stars in our eyes; no awe for our opponents blurring our vision. Perhaps that’s one reason why we were able to outplay the two-time European champions. Two first-half goals by Omer Atzili sealed an amazing win - unquestionably the greatest by an Israeli club in European competition. That win has changed perceptions; Maccabi Haifa are no longer a guest of this greatest of all club competitions, we’re a proud member. Hopefully, it won’t be another 13 years to be in this addictive position again. 

Cities
24 hours in Haifa

On the shores of the Mediterranean, on the slopes of Mount Carmel, you’ll find the city of Haifa. It’s a place of many religions, beautiful landscapes, rich culinary culture – and plenty of hills. The best way to get to know it is to start at the top and work your way down.

You could begin in Merkaz HaCarmel, a neighbourhood where you can enjoy great views of the city when you’re not exploring one of its museums or relaxing in a café. From there descend the Gedera Stairway before stopping at Talpiot Market, full of fruit, vegetables and plenty more besides. Then there’s the downtown Turkish Market quarter, which comes alive in the evening with its bars and restaurants. But, for all the culture and charm that the city has to offer, hearts and minds were focused on but one thing in the run-up to 14 September: football. And when you think about football here, with no offence to Hapoel Haifa fans, you probably think about Maccabi.

Maccabi Haifa are the second most successful football club in Israel (behind their namesakes from Tel Aviv), with 14 league titles in the past 38 years. Some of the greatest players to emerge from these shores, such as Ronny Rosenthal and Eyal Berkovic, were raised at this club; famous Champions League names such as Avram Grant and Yossi Benayoun also had successful stints in green. In fact, an 18-year-old Benayoun was part of the team that beat Paris Saint-Germain over two legs in the Cup Winners’ Cup first round in 1998, scoring an 86th-minute equaliser in the first leg in Paris.

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Maccabi Haifa manager Barak Bakhar (above); taking on Kylian Mbappé in Matchday 1 (top right); fans at the Sammy Ofer Stadium have been given plenty to cheer (right)

As we prepared to face that very team all over again a couple of months ago, Champions League excitement was in the air. Our last experience, in 2009/10, wasn’t the happiest: with zero points, we came bottom of a group featuring Bordeaux, Bayern and Juventus. So for those who could remember, the real nostalgia rush was courtesy of memories of 2002/03. 

That season was amazing. The group stage started with an unimaginable early 1-0 lead at Old Trafford – though it only lasted two minutes and ended in a 5-2 defeat. Next came a Yakubu Ayegbeni hat-trick against Olympiacos. And then, on 29 October 2002, perhaps our greatest European moment: a 3-0 win over Manchester United. Victory against Olympiacos in the final game of Group F would have been enough to get us into the knockout stage, but unfortunately that match finished 3-3. Still, what an experience.

The Mediterranean vibe of downtown Haifa

Now we had the chance to make new memories. With PSG in town, it was like a holiday in Haifa. Thousands of people took a half day, the bars downtown were filled with green-shirted fans and various drinking establishments around the stadium were packed with people a good four hours before the match. Then it came to one hour prior to kick-off, when the traffic near Sammy Ofer Stadium is usually at its busiest. Yet this time the roads were empty – because all 30,000 fans were already inside.

This wasn’t only about our electrifying team, built by coach Barak Bakhar, beating Olympiacos, Apollon and Crvena zvezda in qualifying. It wasn’t even the fact that the best footballers in world football were going to play against us. Rather, it was the prospect of seeing us playing Champions League football in Haifa for the very first time. In 2009 our games were hosted in Ramat Gan because our old stadium did not meet UEFA requirements; in 2002 our home matches were played in Cyprus, due to security issues.

“The atmosphere was unbelievable, but it wasn’t joy that I felt, nor was it happiness. I was stunned”

So there I was in the Sammy Ofer Stadium, sat in my regular seat. And in front of me wasn’t one of those weird, unimportant exhibition matches where the name and colours of a big club all match up, but unfamiliar youth players are wearing the shirt. No, this was the real deal: Messi, Neymar, Mbappé, Ramos, Donnarumma, Verratti and the rest, all here for a Champions League match. A game they needed to win.

Then came the 24th minute. Tjaronn Chery, our No10, scores a beautiful goal. It’s 1-0 to Maccabi Haifa. The atmosphere was unbelievable, but it wasn’t joy that I felt, nor was it happiness. I was stunned. I watched the replays on the big screen and no change – I was still stunned. I was still asking myself, “What the hell did I just see?” For many fans, that moment made them feel something close to what they felt against Manchester United 20 years ago. For younger fans, it was the first time they had ever experienced anything like it. And all of this in my home stadium, a 10-minute drive from my house.

It took Paris 13 minutes to bring us back to reality, with Messi’s equaliser, before Mbappé and Neymar sealed the win in the second half. But it didn’t matter, because football is not just about the final score. It is about those special moments, the great memories that keep bringing you back to the stadium time and time again. And that goal against Paris Saint-Germain was probably the best of them all.

Until Juventus rolled into town at the start of October. By then, though, the focus was on Maccabi Haifa and the points we needed. No stars in our eyes; no awe for our opponents blurring our vision. Perhaps that’s one reason why we were able to outplay the two-time European champions. Two first-half goals by Omer Atzili sealed an amazing win - unquestionably the greatest by an Israeli club in European competition. That win has changed perceptions; Maccabi Haifa are no longer a guest of this greatest of all club competitions, we’re a proud member. Hopefully, it won’t be another 13 years to be in this addictive position again. 

Cities
24 hours in Haifa

On the shores of the Mediterranean, on the slopes of Mount Carmel, you’ll find the city of Haifa. It’s a place of many religions, beautiful landscapes, rich culinary culture – and plenty of hills. The best way to get to know it is to start at the top and work your way down.

You could begin in Merkaz HaCarmel, a neighbourhood where you can enjoy great views of the city when you’re not exploring one of its museums or relaxing in a café. From there descend the Gedera Stairway before stopping at Talpiot Market, full of fruit, vegetables and plenty more besides. Then there’s the downtown Turkish Market quarter, which comes alive in the evening with its bars and restaurants. But, for all the culture and charm that the city has to offer, hearts and minds were focused on but one thing in the run-up to 14 September: football. And when you think about football here, with no offence to Hapoel Haifa fans, you probably think about Maccabi.

Maccabi Haifa are the second most successful football club in Israel (behind their namesakes from Tel Aviv), with 14 league titles in the past 38 years. Some of the greatest players to emerge from these shores, such as Ronny Rosenthal and Eyal Berkovic, were raised at this club; famous Champions League names such as Avram Grant and Yossi Benayoun also had successful stints in green. In fact, an 18-year-old Benayoun was part of the team that beat Paris Saint-Germain over two legs in the Cup Winners’ Cup first round in 1998, scoring an 86th-minute equaliser in the first leg in Paris.

Maccabi Haifa manager Barak Bakhar (above); taking on Kylian Mbappé in Matchday 1 (top right); fans at the Sammy Ofer Stadium have been given plenty to cheer (right)

As we prepared to face that very team all over again a couple of months ago, Champions League excitement was in the air. Our last experience, in 2009/10, wasn’t the happiest: with zero points, we came bottom of a group featuring Bordeaux, Bayern and Juventus. So for those who could remember, the real nostalgia rush was courtesy of memories of 2002/03. 

That season was amazing. The group stage started with an unimaginable early 1-0 lead at Old Trafford – though it only lasted two minutes and ended in a 5-2 defeat. Next came a Yakubu Ayegbeni hat-trick against Olympiacos. And then, on 29 October 2002, perhaps our greatest European moment: a 3-0 win over Manchester United. Victory against Olympiacos in the final game of Group F would have been enough to get us into the knockout stage, but unfortunately that match finished 3-3. Still, what an experience.

The Mediterranean vibe of downtown Haifa

Now we had the chance to make new memories. With PSG in town, it was like a holiday in Haifa. Thousands of people took a half day, the bars downtown were filled with green-shirted fans and various drinking establishments around the stadium were packed with people a good four hours before the match. Then it came to one hour prior to kick-off, when the traffic near Sammy Ofer Stadium is usually at its busiest. Yet this time the roads were empty – because all 30,000 fans were already inside.

This wasn’t only about our electrifying team, built by coach Barak Bakhar, beating Olympiacos, Apollon and Crvena zvezda in qualifying. It wasn’t even the fact that the best footballers in world football were going to play against us. Rather, it was the prospect of seeing us playing Champions League football in Haifa for the very first time. In 2009 our games were hosted in Ramat Gan because our old stadium did not meet UEFA requirements; in 2002 our home matches were played in Cyprus, due to security issues.

“The atmosphere was unbelievable, but it wasn’t joy that I felt, nor was it happiness. I was stunned”

So there I was in the Sammy Ofer Stadium, sat in my regular seat. And in front of me wasn’t one of those weird, unimportant exhibition matches where the name and colours of a big club all match up, but unfamiliar youth players are wearing the shirt. No, this was the real deal: Messi, Neymar, Mbappé, Ramos, Donnarumma, Verratti and the rest, all here for a Champions League match. A game they needed to win.

Then came the 24th minute. Tjaronn Chery, our No10, scores a beautiful goal. It’s 1-0 to Maccabi Haifa. The atmosphere was unbelievable, but it wasn’t joy that I felt, nor was it happiness. I was stunned. I watched the replays on the big screen and no change – I was still stunned. I was still asking myself, “What the hell did I just see?” For many fans, that moment made them feel something close to what they felt against Manchester United 20 years ago. For younger fans, it was the first time they had ever experienced anything like it. And all of this in my home stadium, a 10-minute drive from my house.

It took Paris 13 minutes to bring us back to reality, with Messi’s equaliser, before Mbappé and Neymar sealed the win in the second half. But it didn’t matter, because football is not just about the final score. It is about those special moments, the great memories that keep bringing you back to the stadium time and time again. And that goal against Paris Saint-Germain was probably the best of them all.

Until Juventus rolled into town at the start of October. By then, though, the focus was on Maccabi Haifa and the points we needed. No stars in our eyes; no awe for our opponents blurring our vision. Perhaps that’s one reason why we were able to outplay the two-time European champions. Two first-half goals by Omer Atzili sealed an amazing win - unquestionably the greatest by an Israeli club in European competition. That win has changed perceptions; Maccabi Haifa are no longer a guest of this greatest of all club competitions, we’re a proud member. Hopefully, it won’t be another 13 years to be in this addictive position again. 

Cities
24 hours in Haifa
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