‘Oh shit! I’ve forgotten my lucky envelope as well’.
Those words are mine. They left my mouth on the morning of the game. You need not know why the envelope is deemed lucky, nor how I’d come to forget it, but for context do consider this. I am 32 years old. I’m educated. But for the duration of a morning’s exploration of Haifa I genuinely feared I had jeopardised the hopes of my nation’s football team through the act of leaving a torn dog-eared envelope in a South London flat. This is what following Wales does to you. It suspends all notions of rationality or belief and replaces them instead with a clouded fug of paranoia, superstition, melancholy, and blind, desperate, stupid hope.
But back to the beginning.
‘You are going to Israel just to watch football?’
‘So why are you in the Czech Republic?’
It was, all things considered, a perfectly reasonable question for Tereza to ask. Logic should have placed you several thousand feet in the air between London and Tel Aviv, and not here in her Brno café. But you don’t go on these trips with logic; you go on them with Ralph. And he was sitting between Tereza and you. ‘Flights from Prague are cheaper’ Ralph told Tereza, as he had previously told you, and you saw no need for any further questions. ‘Another beer?’
Brno is fleeting; four hours, four beers before the 1am bus to Prague. There, in a darkened suburban terminus, a woman asks you if you speak English. ‘Good… how do I get here?’ she asks, prodding at a pixelated, screengrabbed map. Sleep deprived, you look around at the dark drizzle of nowhere in particular and apologise; you’re not sure where you are let alone where she’s going. You climb into a taxi wondering if perhaps ‘Do you know Prague?’ would have been a more productive opening lead for her. In Prague airport, over a 4:30am coffee, you realise that though you’ve travelled to watch Wales together for over a decade, this is the first time you’ve ever shared a plane.
You land in the enveloping warmth of Tel Aviv from nodding and semi-dozing across European skies.
‘What is the purpose of your visit to Israel?’ the border guard asks Ralph.
‘You’ve come all this way to watch football?’
‘For Wales,’ qualifies Ralph, as if that makes it more reasonable. After a chat about Gareth Bale he is waved through.
‘What is the purpose of your visit to Israel?’ You contemplate telling him you are Ralph’s carer.
Beaches, museums, the historic port of Jaffa; there are many ways to kill four hours in Tel Aviv. Poking around an aging football ground in the working class Hatikva Quarter wouldn’t be in many guidebooks; except maybe yours. ‘Hang on, I can see footballs on the pitch’. Outside rusting gates stand three men in hi-vis vests; one speaks English. You ask if there is a game on. ‘Yes, at 3pm, but it is not good, third division,’ he replies somewhat apologetically. You tell him you’re from Wales. ‘Ah, Wales!’ he exclaims with a huge smile and rushes forward to shake your hand. ‘I am security tomorrow too,’ he tells you, ‘in the Wales fans. I will see you’.
Through a grill in a crumbling wall you buy a ticket, and back at the entrance you follow a man squeezing an oversized drum through the narrow doorway into the ground. In front of dusty open stands coated in a season’s worth of sunflower seeds, players half-heartedly punt a ball to each other. As planes descend overhead for nearby Ben Gurion Airport and a small band of ultras wave flags of the home team, Maccabi Kabilio Jaffa, the warm up ends and the players line-up for pre-match handshakes.
Tensions among the home fans and in the dugout are high. They are, it transpires, battling against relegation. On the sidelines one of the Maccabi management kicks every ball, he also kicks every water-bottle and every dugout, and indeed anything else in his vicinity. On the side of the dugout he sits an extra panel has been bolted across the plexi-glass, presumably from a previous home game when he chose to punch every ball, every water-bottle etc. When the visitors take the lead the goal is greeted by a significant roar… of arguments from the two hundred or so home fans. A pregnant woman totters down the steps, faces her fellow home fans, yells something in disgust at them all and leaves. They’ve only been playing twenty minutes.
The standard is poor; the better players cancelled out by collective theatrics and a determination to earn free-kicks rather than retain possession. When Maccabi’s big number nine flops to the turf for a fifth time a man watching from his balcony on the far side decides enough is enough, puts on his shirt and goes back inside. At half-time the players exit to a general noise of displeasure, before a gentle hush descends. Unfortunately the onset of Shabbat determines that you must leave just after the break to make the last train to Haifa – despite the best efforts of half a dozen home fans to find you an alternate route. You say goodbye to the steward as you go. ‘I will look out for you,’ he replies, with a menacing tone you hope was delivered accidentally.
Shortly after you arrive in Haifa, night falls and Shabbat commences. But it is not the holy silence you’d expected; instead, beneath the canopies of Ben Gurion Avenue the Arabic bars and restaurants thrive. From the Baha’i Gardens to the port, glasses clink and lamps twinkle in the trees as the sweet smell of Shisha hovers above. You eat and you drink and you reminisce about trips gone by as you try not to admit to pre-match nerves. At Faces, a bar whose façade peculiarly also boasts of by-day existence as a physiotherapy clinic and dentists, Lucy meets you and hands you a sheet of Hebrew phrases. The waiter is less impressed than you’d hoped. ‘Maybe now you learn Arabic.’ Hebrew goes on hold until after Shabbat.
Saturday. Game day. As Haifa rests behind shop shutters and locked doors you take a walk around its principle sites; upwards ever upwards to the stunning Baha’i Gardens, and eastwards to the former stadium of Maccabi and Hapoel Haifa. Inexplicably Unesco have only felt fit to recognise one. At the latter between many locked gates you find one open door. Inside hundreds faces from Haifa’s footballing past peer down through the gloom from old team photographs. ‘You want to go in?’ the man inside is surprised, ‘but it is like a beach’. The woman with him is less accommodating. ‘It is locked I am afraid,’ she says with clipped British diction, before continuing, ‘Still, at least England won last night’. Know your audience love.
On your way back to the hotel to ‘Wales-up’ for the game you pass a couple of guys flyering for a bar. ‘You guys like trance music? You should come in, it’s like a buck a beer, good DJs, you’ll like it.’
‘What time are you open ‘til?’
‘We’re open to 11 so you know, you can go fuck Israel and then come back after.’
The previously silent street on which your hotel sits now carries the noise of cheers and chants from its far end, where men in red shirts hang Wales flags from the trees. Beyond them you join Nick in Eli’s to prop up the bar and, perhaps aided by nerves, put away the local Gold Star beer with a touch too much ease. All too soon it is time to head to the stadium.
‘My barman tells me you want a taxi,’ says the bar owner, ‘you know you should just take the bus.’
‘Where does it go from?’
‘No, the bus you came here on earlier.’
‘We didn’t come on a bus.’
‘Ah… then you need a taxi,’ he replies to your collective laughter.
But you don’t take a taxi, because the young Israel fans across the bar are leaving too. So you go with them to the bus stop. ‘Name three current Israeli players,’ they say – a ten famous Belgians for the modern football hipster. Thankfully Ralph obliges, because beyond Tal Ben Haim, all your mind will give you is Ronnie Rosenthal and Yaser Arafat. They help you buy a ticket (the lads, not Ronnie and Yaser) and you cram onto a metro-bus which fills with more fans, and flags, and face paint and songs with every stop. ‘Viva Gareth Bale,’ the three of you sing during a brief lull to collective laughter from the rest of the bus. As the golden curves of the Sammy Ofer Stadium comes into view one of the young Israel fans tells you Wales will win 3-0. He is the third to do so. You tell him it will be a draw. It really is as much as you’re hoping for.
Entering the stadium is a long drawn out process of high security and high spirits, with armed guards pausing from searches to photograph the throng of singing Welshmen. Once inside, with telling inevitability, the first person you see is the steward from yesterday. He hugs you like a long lost friend. ‘I will show to your seats personally,’ he offers.
There was a time when you always remembered the game. Every kick, every chance, every failure, in painfully minute detail. Now they stay with you only as montages. Bits and pieces of two hours that felt like four, blurred and overlapping. The warm ups end. Flags on the field. Cheers. ‘Wales, Wales, Wales!’ The anthems. Arms aloft through passionate mispronunciation. The truly haunting Israeli anthem, roared with more collective fervour than you’d expected. Mutual applause and the game underway.
Israel have the early possession, but their attack lacks conviction whilst their defence plays with the fumbling nervousness of a kid on their first day at a new school; haunted by the prospect of what could happen if they make a mistake. Below you Aaron Ramsey jinks inside and with the outside of his boot curls a shot. It couldn’t could it? It doesn’t, but it’s early enough and audacious enough for you to react with whimsical shakes of the head.
Not so the next big chance. Sustained Welsh passing and pressure ends with Gareth Bale delivering a perfect cross for the man arriving at the far-post. Unfortunately that man is the last person you want to see there. If James Collins had tried to trap Bale’s ball he would inevitably have scored, instead he tries to cushion it home and inexplicably traps it beneath his foot. The best controlling touch of his life at the worse possible moment. ‘Why did it have to be you Collins, you bloody great clown’ you find yourself yelling before you realise what you’re saying.
At this stage in the game nothing is certain, that could’ve been it. ‘Independent football nation’ echoes from the red corner to lift the mood. Wales are good, moving the ball neatly and with confidence, but you’ve long learned that this rarely counts for anything. Israel are yet to show what they are capable of, but their fans are very much up for it. The man on the tannoy leads their cheers and when they are forced into a first half substitute the crowd roar the announcement back at him. Coming on is number eight Tomer…
For all the good football the goal comes straight from Pontcana Fields. A big boot down field, a nod back from Bale and Ramsey’s header, looping forever, dropping so slowly it takes you longer than anyone around you to be convince it has fallen beneath the bar. By the time you’re ready to accept it men are streaming past you down the gangways, and your face is getting hit with beard, with stubble, with polyester and balding head as you hug all around you whilst screaming at an octave you last reached in primary school… on a recorder.
Only half-time’s prescience prevents mass Welsh hyper-ventilation. You share your disbelief with fellow fans; ‘it’s going to be a long second half’ the collective feeling. No-one expects anything other than a fight and a scrap. In the toilets you take a leak next to a leek, and by the time you return Joe Ledley is already hobbling off. ‘Fuck, we’ll miss him’. But then Bale spots a gap and draws a foul and in the opposite corner of the stadium you have a chance. ‘It’s too close for Bale,’ you say,’ it’s too close for Bale, it’s too close for Bale. I’m going to keep saying it until it hits the net’. You do, and it does; and it is pandemonium part two. Arms everywhere; blurs of red, white, green and yellow and a brilliant, brilliant roar. Through the plexi-glass that separates you from the home fans, a row of sullen faces stare back. You recognise them. They are yours from Milan, from Novi Sad, from Teplice, from Vienna and everywhere in between.
Shortly after losing the second goal Israel lose a man too and as Eitan Tibi trudges from the field the crowd is silent but for 900 waving arms in one corner and a chant of ‘cheerio’. Israel, from team to fan, have given up. When Ben Sahar comes on, the announcer once again yells his first name, but is met with silence from the home crowd. He tries again; ‘BEN…’ and does get a response; laughter from the away end.
From seasoned Wales Away-ers to your right carries a new chant. ‘We like to sing, we like to dance. This time next year we’ll be off to France’. You will score again, it is now just a matter of when. The answer is 77 minutes; Ramsey steps over and squares and Bale does the rest. This time you don’t hug, you don’t jump, you just stand, arms aloft, looking into the night sky and laughing. It’s just not meant to be like this.
At 3-0 you would perhaps expect all out bedlam in the Wales end; jumping, dancing, general hysteria. The truth is quite different. You haven’t been in this situation before, and so no-one knows quite what to do or how to behave; just an incline of grins in red shirts grinning in bewilderment. The final ten minutes pass by and you have no recollection of them except for the man behind you leaning over your shoulder on 86 minutes to say, ‘I’d take a point now,’ the calling-card of a seasoned Wales Away traveller. At full-time, as the few remaining Israeli fans depart, the players huddle, before wandering en masse to the wedge of Welsh support. Mutual applause. Collective joy. Together stronger.
Back in the centre you return to Eli’s and the man himself greets you with a brief shrug and a familiar hug. He clears a space at the bar and there you stay for the rest of the night. Gold Star in your glass, grins on your faces as you’re joined by other Wales fans; nomads from Connah’s Quay and exiled North Walians via Toulouse and Belgium. Andy Williams on the juke box and bemused regulars watch on as a laughing bar owner films you singing badly along. ‘Please let me know that it’s real, it’s just too good to be true.’
Sunday. Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem. Endless possibilities, but why hare round the country with a hangover, when you can, for once, bask in victory and sunshine? Gold Star in hand, sea-lapping at the rocks by your side. So relaxed are you that you entertain thoughts of a summer in France before hastily retreating to the safety of conditional tense. ‘If we make it, I’d just want to be there for the opening game. That’d be enough for me. Just see us take the field. It’s all I’ve dreamed of.’
‘You came to Israel just for football?’ asks Maya later that night, having put her fashion design sketching on hold to chat with you at the bar where she would, on other nights, be working. ‘For Wales,’ you both reply, forgetting this is only justification in your mind. You’re grateful for meeting Maya; otherwise you could have spent the night making ill-advised plans to tour France in a camper-van. Instead you chat fashion and politics and lifestyles and customs and Ralph discovers Geek-chic. ‘It’s never about the football,’ is how you’ve long justified these trips so Maya’s intervention is timely if you’re to continue that ruse through this unprecedented spell of being actually good at the football bit. Several beers and an on-the-house shot of Arak later you say goodnight, and on discovering that Maya lives just a street from your hotel, agree to meet for breakfast.
‘Everyone is so friendly,’ you’ll say in the days to come, when asked how Israel was. When you leave Haifa, and you hug Maya goodbye, she, like the steward you met at Maccabi Kabilio Jaffa, like the owner and barmaid at Eli’s, like the young Israeli fans who accompanied you on the bus, gets a Welsh football badge for her troubles. Of course none of these people want a FA Wales pin-badge, but then ‘it’s never about the football’, for them or us.
‘You came all this way to watch football?’
At Ben Gurion Airport Ralph is once again being grilled by airport security. ‘For Wales,’ the guard adds; answering before you have chance to. ‘You brought a lot of cheering aids,’ he says as Ralph’s Wales flag, shirts and badges tumble from his bag. Searches undertaken, you repack your bags, but the guard has one last exit question for Ralph.
‘Tell me do you prefer Giggs or Bale?’
‘Bale, we don’t like Giggs’
‘Ha, every Wales fan tells me they don’t like Giggs. OK, you’re good to leave Israel.’