The Beautiful Game in the Promised Land

Just over two months ago, I found myself sitting on a plane at SFO airport about to depart on a 15 hour flight to Tel Aviv, Israel. I was experiencing a strong combination of excitement and nerves, while also trying to recover from the whirlwind that had been the past week. The week where I got a call from my agent on Monday, sat through negotiations until Thursday, packed up my life in Sacramento by Friday, and was at the airport on Saturday afternoon.

I arrived in Tel Aviv with the promises that ‘someone will be waiting to help you through customs’ and ‘Eran will pick you up and drive you to Haifa’, but little paperwork or confirmation of any of this. Sure enough, someone was waiting before customs with a sign bearing my name and I found Eran easily (who turned out to be the team manager for the U19s academy team among other roles). Throughout the journey to Israel and my first couple days in country, there were many instances of uncertainty and just trusting that things would work out, which, luckily, they did.

Over the next day and a half, I had my medical exams with the team doctors, signed the transfer paperwork, and eventually met my new team. Then, before I knew it, I was back on a plane, only this time I was surrounded by my new teammates and headed to France for my first taste of European soccer as a player rather than a spectator. We arrived in Strasbourg, France a few days ahead of our EUFA Europa League qualification match in order to acclimate and train in the stadium there before the big game.

In the game, we put up a good fight, but a first-half red card and penalty kick against us severely hurt our chances. The game ended in a 3-1 loss, but I’ll never forget the experience of my first EUFA match, even as just a bench player. The stadium, the crowd, and the atmosphere of the game felt entirely new to me. A sea of 26,000 constantly jumping, chanting, and whistling throughout the game, and about 600 of our own fans who made the trip all the way from Israel to cheer, bang drums, and light-off smoke bombs in the stands.

Soon after the Europa League qualifiers, league play began for the Israeli Premier League. The Israeli Premier League is the top division of Israeli football and it consists of 14 teams. The regular season is a round-robin style of home-away games, and then there is a championship round where the top 6 teams battle it out for the league crown. The winner is the team with the best overall record after all 36 games. At the end of the season the bottom two teams are relegated into the second division for the following year. This style of league with relegation is really high stakes for the coaches, players, and especially the team owners. The difference between playing in the Premier League and the second division can mean a difference of tens of millions of shekels for the team. 

Maccabi Haifa FC is consistently one of the top teams in the Premier League and has a very large and passionate fanbase. The fans expect us to win every game and anything short of that results in lots of questions from the media and even directly from the fans themselves via social media. It is certainly a high pressure environment to be in, but it can be a very rewarding environment too. The fandom of Maccabi Haifa extends far beyond the field and stadium. Green graffiti can be spotted all throughout Israel sporting the acronym MHFC or some other pro Maccabi Haifa message. Football is life here. The sworn enemy of our fanbase is Maccabi Tel-Aviv, who dons yellow and blue jerseys, so both Jamie and I have heard multiple variations of ‘We don’t wear yellow here’ from fans once they learn our connection to the team.

As a young soccer player, the dream was always to become a professional player, but the realist inside me never thought that this would actually be a viable life path. However, I am elated to find myself here, halfway around the world, making my living doing the thing I love on a grand stage. I relish the competition, the constant striving for improvement, and even the pressure of it all. I know that I won’t be able to do this forever, but for the time being, I’ve got the best job in the world for me.  

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