In a night charged with emotion, Maccabi Haifa stood tall, not just as a football team but as a symbol of strength and unity in the face of tragedy.
Despite their 2-1 defeat against Villarreal in the Europa League, the significance of the evening stretched far beyond the football pitch.
The haunting image of 1,400 blue and white balloons outside the AEK Arena in Larnaca served as a poignant reminder of the pain Israel endured on October 7.
This was more than a game for Maccabi Haifa, representing Israel’s most diverse club. The club, a mosaic of Jews, Christians, Arabs, and Druze, carried the weight of loss and trauma on their shoulders.
For Haifa, playing on neutral ground in Cyprus due to security concerns, the match was a respite from the harsh realities back home.
Domestic football on hold, a fretful public, and the ongoing conflict with Hamas painted a bleak picture. The team, having lost 49 fans on October 7, couldn’t escape the grim atmosphere surrounding the game.
“The mind is not here,” expressed Sean Goldberg, a Haifa defender. The team, having barely trained in the past month, faced Villarreal with heavy hearts.
The match, originally scheduled as a home game, played behind closed doors, lacked the usual fanfare.
Yet, amidst the oddness of the occasion, Haifa found motivation. Football became a temporary escape, a chance to unite fans and players.
However, the reality was inescapable. Before kickoff, Haifa’s coaches held two Israeli flags aloft as both teams observed a minute’s silence for the victims of the October 7 attack.
“We stand in memory of 1,400 Israelis,” echoed through the stadium, but unity proved elusive as only nine Villarreal players joined the moment.
Ilias Akhomach and Aïssa Mandi stayed away, illustrating the complexities that linger beyond the football field.
The match itself unfolded as a thrilling contest. Despite Villarreal’s dominance, Haifa took a surprising lead, with goalkeeper Shareef Keouf, a Druze, showcasing outstanding saves, embodying Haifa’s inclusive spirit.
However, late goals from Villarreal secured their victory, leaving Haifa at the bottom of Group F.
Manager Messay Dego, an Ethiopian Jew, couldn’t have asked for more from his players, whose resilience and spirit went beyond the final score.
As the team huddled after the game, the 1,400 balloons swayed, a somber reminder that, for Maccabi Haifa, the journey extends far beyond the football pitch – it’s a journey of remembrance, strength, and unity in the face of adversity.