Maccabi Tel Aviv vs. Chelsea : 24 November 2015.
This was a unique game for me. For the first ever time, I had decided to attend more than just one of the autumnal group phase away games. Until now, my forays in to foreign lands have been limited to one game before Christmas – due to financial constraints and annual leave limitations – but on the evening of the Champions League draw in August, I soon followed up an EasyJet booking to Porto with one to Tel Aviv.
Games like this do not come our way too often.
As the weeks passed, my sense of anticipation grew steadily, although there were several moments of self-doubt, too. I would be attending a game in Israel, a country which has had a history of internal strife with different factions inside its borders and external conflict with its immediate neighbours. Conversations took place with trusted friends – fellow travellers – and these issues were discussed. Yes, there were concerns, but at no point did I think about staying at home. Then came the events in Paris on the evening of Friday 13 November, and my mind became agitated with all sorts of worries for my safety. I am sure that I was not the only one. My worries, thankfully, slowly decreased again.
In the pub before the game with Norwich City at the weekend, my good friend Alan mentioned that he had booked himself on a day tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem for the day after the game. I quickly followed suit.
I was going to Israel. I was going to Tel Aviv, to Haifa, to Jerusalem, to Bethlehem.
This would surely be one of the trips of my lifetime.
Three days of work (Chelsea in Haifa), rest (the beaches of Tel Aviv) and play (the Holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem).
This would be one for the ages.
My trip to the Holy Land began in the small hours of Tuesday 23 November, the day of the game. I had booked myself on the 7am flight out of Luton, which would get me in to Ben Gurion airport at 2pm. This is not normal for me; I usually have a night in a foreign city to acclimatise, but I would be staying on after until Thursday evening to compensate. As I drove west through neighbouring counties, with the rain lashing down outside, all was surprisingly calm. I think that I was subconsciously trying to put my security and safety fears to one side. Thoughts flitted in and out of my mind.
I thought about our only ever previous trip to Israel, which came only a month or so after the awful attacks in the United States in the September of 2001. On that occasion, several first-team regulars chose not to fly to Israel, and came under considerable scrutiny. My view at the time was that I had great empathy with those who chose not to fly out. For the players that were husbands and fathers, I could understand why they felt they should not go. Marriages could have been threatened if a player and his wife disagreed on this. It was a tense time. Other Chelsea fans were not so forgiving. As far as I can recollect, a very small away contingent – around 150 – followed the team out for the game against Hapoel Tel Aviv, which we lost 2-0.
On a personal level, there was a story too.
My dear father, who I have often mentioned in these tales of my Chelsea life, was in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. Back in the celebrated 2011/2012 season, I managed to involve part of my father’s wartime history during two match reports. For the away game at Everton in the February of 2012, I wrote about my father’s training at RAF West Kirby on The Wirral at the very start of his RAF career. For the away game in Naples, just ten days later, I wrote about my father’s stay in Naples in 1944, when he was billeted at the San Carlo Opera House for six months. In the space of ten days, I had covered two landmark locations in my father’s wartime story. There were other locations that my father visited, including Algeria and Malta, but my father’s very first overseas posting was – yes, you have guessed it – in the city of Jerusalem in July 1944. Not for the first time in my Chelsea travels, I would be walking in my father’s footsteps.
Like myself, Dad was an avid photographer and as I look back on his life and the many wonderful memories that I can easily recollect, one of the biggest gifts that he has been able to provide me with is a small photograph album which contains an image of his squadron badge on the inside cover – Squadron 283 “Attende Et Vigila” – and around one hundred of his war time photographs, taken in locations as diverse as Maison Blanche in Algeria, Taormina in Sicily and Marseilles in France.
Prior to my departure to Israel, I easily hunted out this precious set of photographs and focussed on the ones at the very start of Dad’s story, when he was just twenty-one years of age.
The album contains fascinating photographs of the garden of Gethsemane, the Dome of the Rock, the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Rock, Arch of Ecce Homo, St. David’s Tower, the Wailing Wall, Via Dolorosa, Damascus Gate, the tomb of Jesus, the Temple area and a panoramic view of the whole city. Interestingly, also, there is a fabulous photograph of my father and his eventual best man Hank, sitting on the roof of the Abyssinian Consulate, in RAF regulation shorts, but bare-chested and seemingly enjoying the view, with their smiles wide.
There is also a single photograph of my father, with Hank and three other friends, at Hadera in the September of 1944. Hadera is near the cost, between Tel Aviv and Haifa and I therefore deducted that my father would have entered and exited Israel – or Palestine as it was called until 1948 – through the ancient port of Haifa.
By October 1944, the photographs were of Naples and my father had moved on.
One photograph among those mentioned piqued my interest.
Maybe because of the Italian sounding name. Maybe because it was a named street – in Dad’s pen, beneath the photograph – rather than just a “street in Jerusalem.”
It stayed in my mind.
At Luton Airport, I soon met up with Kev from Edinburgh, who was with us in Porto not so many weeks ago. He too had booked himself on to the tour of the holy cities on the Wednesday. It was around 5am on a cold winter morning in Bedfordshire, and we would soon be jetting off to a sunny city on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. However, both of us were suddenly a little confused and ill at ease.
“Why are we doing this?”
“I dunno mate.”
The flight lasted around four and a half hours. There were only a few fellow Chelsea supporters on the trip. We were greatly outnumbered by many orthodox Jews, in their distinctive black hats, skull caps, black jackets and white shirts, some travelling alone, some with their families. Here was proof that this would be a Chelsea away like no other. With my eyes getting tired, I was thankfully able to catch up on some sleep. We flew over Germany, Hungary and beyond. Refreshed, I was then also able to read sections of the guide book to Israel that I had bought a fortnight previously, but which had been untouched until now.
Of course, the book confirmed several thoughts about Israel. I was reminded of its complex and confusing political history. I tried to understand the geography. My guide book focussed on Israel, with only a minimal mention of the Palestinian lands of the West Bank and the infamous Gaza Strip. And then there was the religious aspect. If any city can claim to represent the cradle of religious beliefs it is Jerusalem. But as soon as I thought that I was getting to grips with a particular train of thought, the words on the page in front of me would flow away on some bizarre tangent and I would have to go back and re-read the section again. Many a moment was spent trying to understand the complexities of the Jewish religion. I was still trying to unravel the notion of the Jews as a race or a religion, or both, when I was met with the conundrum of secular Jews. And then there was the equally baffling notion that not all Arabs living in Israel were Muslim (only 83%, with 9% Christian and 8% Druze.) This was getting all too confusing, but made me all the more excited to think that I would soon be able to see all of this for myself. Then things got a little strange.
I looked up and noted that the chap in front of me was wearing a Manchester United skull cap. I sighed. Then I noted that the Jewish woman to my left was breastfeeding her infant.
There was a tit in front of me and now one to the left.
I resumed a little sleep and woke with only an hour to go. The flight had zoomed by. At Ben Gurion airport, passport and custom checks were quick and easy. Kev and I hopped in to a waiting cab. We were on our way in to Tel Aviv. The immediate scenery did not look to dissimilar to a city in Southern Spain at first glance, with modern roads and high-rise apartments. As we delved into the city, though, things became more alien.
“Kev, why are we here, mate?”
A solemn answer.
My first thoughts about the city of Tel Aviv were of contrasts. Modern shops and cars, but shabby buildings. We drove on. Suddenly, the atmosphere changed significantly. Buildings were more modern, the shops sleeker. We spotted the Mediterranean Sea to our left. We reached our hotel, overlooking the city’s small marina, at around 3pm. We soon met up with Alan, who had travelled out the previous day. A serious drinking session had taken place among those Chelsea fans already in town, but I knew that this would be a day of few drinks, such were the time constraints involved. I freshened up, then set off for a local bar, overlooking the sandy beach.
We placed our sunglasses on as we slowly walked past towering palm trees towards the twin bars of “Jessica’s” and “Mike’s Place.”
The weather was fantastic. That first beer would go down well.
“Chelsea away. Love it.”
We bumped in to a few familiar faces at “Jessica’s” and sat inside for a couple of “two for one” dark Tuborg ales. The sun, a huge ball of flame, was setting over the sea – it disappeared so quickly – and we just revelled in the moment.
This was just perfect.
In all honesty, I could have stayed there for a few more hours, but we needed to move on. Big John, who was staying in a hotel around a mile to the south, had arranged for a coach to take around forty of us up to Haifa.
On the walk to the hotel, we spotted Millsy and two mates, shorts on, sandals on, beach towel over their shoulders, licking at ice-creams. It was a surreal sight, and not one that usually accompanies Chelsea in Europe. They were heading off to get the train north to Haifa.
We set off a little later than planned, at around 5.30pm, by which time night had almost fallen, and we were snared in rush hour traffic for a while. The coach was full of familiar faces, but there was little chat or revelry as we slowly moved north. It was so quiet, in fact, that it almost seemed like we were on our way back from a game. The dark evening outside and whispered conversations inside. I don’t think that this was because we were nervous; more likely that the sustained drinking session of the previous night was still affecting some.
The game didn’t kick-off until 9.45pm local time. It seemed that we were going to arrive in Haifa way too early. However, a journey which should have taken an hour took two. We were deposited outside the sleek and photogenic Sammy Ofer Stadium in the southern outskirts of Haifa at around 7.30pm. Around fifteen of us were still without match tickets though. After a little walk out to the main road, Kev and I managed to flag down a cab and we hopped in. The taxi driver hardly spoke a word of English and there were a few moments of concern as we tried to tell him where the Chelsea ticket collection hotel was based. Thankfully, his GPS kicked in and we were headed in to town on a twenty minute ride which would cost us eighty shekels or around £15.
Once the cab driver realised that we were in town for the football, he began annoying us both.
“Chelsea bad (smile), yes?”
“Arsenal good (smile), yes?”
“Chelsea not so good (smile), yes?”
“Leicester good (smile), yes? Jamie Vardy good!”
“Ferguson good (smile), yes?”
“Wenger good (smile), yes?”
“Mourinho not so good (smile), yes?”
I whispered to Kev…”the fucker ain’t getting a tip at this rate.”
As we neared the city centre, we drove past a throng of local Chelsea fans, all bedecked in all types of royal blue, with Israeli Chelsea Supporters banners and scarves on show. I thought that I recognised my mate Dom from New York who was in town for the game. With our tickets firmly in our hands – phew – at around 8.15pm, we walked back to the bar where the locals had been spotted. Bizarrely, the place was like a bar after a gunslinger had visited. They had all just left.
We backtracked to another bar, where we quickly sipped another dark Tuborg with Kev, from London, who sits near me in the MHU. The three of us then caught a cab – no football chat from the cab driver this time, thank heavens – and back to the environs of the stadium. The place was heaving with the yellow and blue of the team from Tel Aviv. With a capacity of 30,000 I presumed that it was chosen as a venue ahead of Maccabi’s own Bloomfield Stadium, which holds half that number.
Kev summed it up.
“It’s like Hearts playing at Celtic Park. Different city, main rivals. Crazy.”
There were about forty-five minutes to the kick-off, so we had a little time to take it all in. I love the hustle and bustle of match-going crowds, especially in foreign lands, and Israel was no different. There was little chanting outside, but I could tell that the locals were exhilarated to host the English Champions. We each bought a couple of – straight, not circular – bagels for ten shekels, but they were a tough chew. Outside the stadium, there is a rather graceful statue of a young woman in flowing robes holding a dove, and the night lights reflected off its shiny metallic surfaces. In the distant, spotlights shone high in to the night, and a full moon shone down on the stadium, which is shrouded in old gold metallic cladding. It is a stunning sight. My camera whirled into action.
We approached the turnstiles by the away sector. I was dreading a repeat of Porto, when my camera was not allowed entry. Thankfully, after a very quick glance in to my camera bag – “no bottles”? – and a cursory pat down, we were in.
A hot dog with sauerkraut, ketchup and mustard went down well, and we took up our seats in the lower tier. Although sleek and visually appealing outside, the two-tiered stands were quite mundane once inside. It was “sit/stand” where you like, so Kev and I shuffled up next to Alan and Raymondo – who had spent their pre-match at a bar in a local shopping centre – alongside Brighton Tony’s group. Above me, a set of familiar flags were draped over the balcony wall.
Ontario Canada (Burger and Julie).
Hastings Chelsea (Mark).
Hayes Chelsea (Kenny).
Studham Loyal (Ronnie).
Badgercrack Nebraska (Sergei and Dmitry).
Down at the front, easily spotted due to their near unanimous wearing of Chelsea replica shirts (not really our “thing” on tour in Europe), were a gaggle of around forty young local fans. To our immediate right was a larger section of local fans too.
Skull caps and Chelsea scarves.
One chap even had a Chelsea / Tottenham half-and-half scarf.
We had apparently sold around one thousand tickets for this game, but my take was that around a third of these were to Israelis.
It was a warm night, and designer polos with shorts were the order of the day. On the far side, the more vociferous home fans were making a din. Fair play to them, this was their big night. The teams entered the pitch and the whole stadium held up plastic yellow and blue mosaics. It was a fine sight. The Champions League anthem was played, and a middle-aged chap to our left held up a Tottenham Hotspur scarf towards us.
Two banners were on show at the north end.
“Ultras Tel Aviv.”
I was reminded of how the two common names of Maccabi and Hapoel came in to fruition in Israel. Nothing as simple as “United” or “City” in Israel; these two addendums derived from the political stance of the clubs at their inception. Teams featuring Maccabi stem from the Liberal party, those with Hapoel from the Labour party. Of the fourteen teams in the Israeli first division, all but three contain either of these two words.
There was also a banner crying out for attention.
“Europe Wake Up! Zionism Is Not A Crime!”
All of a sudden, the game was upon us.
Azpilicueta – Terry – Cahill – Baba.
Matic – Fabregas.
Willian – Oscar – Hazard.
Within the first few minutes, an unmarked Maccabi player – Iglebor – evaded all defenders and headed over from a central position inside our box. In truth, he should have scored. It was soon apparent that the pitch was cutting up very easily and divots soon started appearing all over. We seemed to enjoy attacking down our right, with Dave heavily involved. This suited me since this is where the Chelsea fans were settled.
Snap, snap, snap.
We enjoyed the majority of the ball, as ever, but we wondered if our shot shy attacker Diego Costa would cause the Tel Aviv ‘keeper much activity.
On twenty minutes, Willian sent over a corner. Gary Cahill rose high, possibly using a defender as a step ladder, and headed goal wards. Radkovic reacted incredibly well but could only push the ball on to a post. Cahill’s momentum carried him forward and he stabbed the ball home.
His run towards us was captured on film and it was lovely to see all of the team join him.
We continued to dominate the game. Again we could be accused of over-passing, though. That incisiveness, so missing this season, is still not with us. Eden Hazard, on the back of a warming performance against Norwich City, seemed lost. We had a few attempts on goal. A shot from Fabregas, and one from Willian. An extravagant bicycle kick from Diego, a ball played in to Hazard but his jump and stretch mistimed. On one memorable occasion, with Chelsea attacking hard, Baba was further up the left flank than Diego Costa.
“Get in the box, Costa!”
We were winning, but the mood in the away end was hardly euphoric. There wasn’t too much noise either, save from a few rousing verses of “Willian.”
In the closing moments, the lump of Israeli rock that is Tal Ben Haim kicked out at Diego Costa – I was unsighted – and the ridiculously young looking referee from Turkey produced the red card. Ben Haim – I can never remember warming him to him as a Chelsea player – slouched off the field, his misery complete.
If I am honest, once the second-half began, I found myself losing interest. Chelsea were now attacking the far goal, and I was starting to get increasingly tired. I occasionally sat in my seat and rested my legs. I started to think of how many hours sleep that I would be getting ahead of our trip to Jerusalem on the Wednesday, when we would be leaving our hotel at 7.15am. I was so glad that I had not been drinking.
“Leave here at midnight, maybe 12.30am, a two hour journey, back at 2.30am, maybe sleep at 3.00am, up at 6.00am. Three hours. Bollocks.”
A fine save from Begovic was warmly applauded by the Chelsea ranks. A close-range volley from Dave was well saved, and then Begovic was at his very best again. Despite the one man advantage, Chelsea were far from impressive. As the night drew on, I began dreaming of my hotel bed.
The home fans put on a fine show, with both ends taking it in terms to rally behind their teams, as shouts of “Maccabi” bounced back to and forth.
Pedro replaced a very lacklustre Hazard.
“No more than 4/10 tonight. You can be one of the top ten players in the entire world, but if your confidence is shot, it means nothing” I said to a chap nearby.
Sadly, John Terry crumpled to the floor and was stretchered off. I watched him as he left the field; I could tell he was in pain. There was no clenched fist salute to the away fans, a sure sign that he was troubled.
“God, just what we need with Tottenham on Sunday.”
He was replaced by Kurt Zouma.
A free-kick in “Willian Territory” had us all hoping and praying. He did not disappoint. A curling effort dipped over a weak wall and in to an unguarded net.
The game was safe now and we could relax.
In Portugal came the surprising news that Kiev were winning.
Shortly after, a fantastic deep cross from the somewhat maligned Baba Rahman was headed home by Oscar. Towards the end of the game, I eventually met up with Dom, from NYC, albeit for just a few words. He had travelled over with no ticket waiting for him, but one of the local Israelis had sorted him out.
Our victory was complete when Kurt Zouma headed easily past Rajkovic from an Oscar header.
It matched the result in the home leg.
If Willian made all of the headlines with another excellent goal allied to a typically bullish performance, I thought that Cesar Azpilicueta was also outstanding, combining a fine defensive display with many forceful runs at his opposing full-back. Diego Costa was as frustrating as ever, but – overall – this was a decent enough showing.
Job done troops.
However, I was a little dismayed that only two or three of the players made much of an effort to thank the travelling Chelsea supporters for our efforts. Only Gary Cahill and Asmir Begovic appeared to go out of their way to walk a few steps towards us.
This wasn’t Watford. Or Leicester. Or Southampton.
This was Tel Aviv, for fuck sake, boys.
Thankfully, the coach driver made great time on the return trip. I was back in my bed just after 1.30am. It had been a long, long day.
I dropped off to sleep.
On the Wednesday, I stumbled out of bed after just over four hours’ sleep. A shower soon revitalised me. With the work behind us, it was now time to rest and play. While the team no doubt headed home to Blighty straight after the game, and some fans were not far behind them, I still had two days left. A quick breakfast at the hotel was followed by a mini-bus calling to take us to Jerusalem and then Bethlehem. It would be a day that would be the highlight of the trip; who says it is only about the football? Not me.
Our tour guide, a chap who lived on a kibbutz in a winery called Ossi, was soon detailing facts about Tel Aviv, Israel, and then Jerusalem as we drove east and up towards the hills. We were caught in a little traffic on the busy road, which was occasionally lined with the metal shells of army vehicles, no doubt in remembrance of lives lost in previous periods of conflict. We stopped for a much needed coffee just as all three of us were starting to nod off. It revived us instantly. A Chelsea fan from Hillingdon, Suk, was on our mini bus and we had a little chat about the game. He had been one of the few at the 2001 game in Tel Aviv. I was honestly surprised at how many minarets, indicating the site of mosques, were visible on the drive in to the city. Up to 20% of the population of Israel are Muslims, and here was the proof. Before we knew it, we were heading past the 9/11 monument on the outskirts of Jerusalem before heading in from the north, past the impressive British Military Cemetery. We were soon parked up on Mount Scopus, which affords a magnificent panoramic view of the seven hills of Jerusalem. What is it about cities built on seven hills? Rome is the same. They say that Bath, my place of birth, is too.
Jerusalem looked spectacular.
I spoke to Kevin, reminding him of the conversation that we had shared on several occasions on the previous day regarding our visit to Israel.
“Right. That is why we are here.”
We looked down on the city once more.
I was in awe.
The shining gold semi-circle of the Temple Mount dominated the vista before me, but this would be off limits on this trip, as non-Muslims are not allowed to enter. My father, in 1944, had visited it, but times had changed since then. I gazed down at the various locations as Ossi pointed out their part in the complex and interesting story of Jerusalem. For the first of many moments throughout my stay, I began questioning what I was hearing. The Temple Mount is allegedly where Mohamed ascended from earth to heaven, a fact that was alien to me before this trip. So, in addition to being the city where Jesus Christ was crucified and rose again – the epicentre of all Christianity – this was Mo Town, too.
And yet, my thoughts on all of this were swirling around me.
I have never mentioned my faith, nor my religious thoughts, in these Chelsea tales ever before – why should I? – and I very rarely talk about such topics with anyone but my very closest friends. But on a visit to the Holy Land, it seems churlish for me to keep my thoughts to myself. My parents took me to church every Sunday throughout my childhood and although I rarely attend these days, I usually pray each night…a few words…and so I guess that I would be called a Christian. I’m certainly spiritual.
However, my rational nature always tends to disrupt my thoughts concerning religious fundamentalism and I can see through the vast majority of the religious bombast which sadly dominates some areas of various faiths.
I knew that my travels through Jerusalem might make me feel uneasy as the day progressed.
Back in the coach, we glimpsed the arid bleakness of the Sinai Desert to the east. I could have stayed looking out at its ethereal bleakness for ages. Then, sadly, the time just went too quickly for me to take everything in. In only ten minutes, the coach drove past the Garden of Gethsemane, the Kidron Valley, the city of David, various churches, a huge Jewish cemetery, all interspersed with a rapid fire commentary. By the time that we had stopped to park near the Jaffa Gate to the west of the ancient walled city, I was in need of a few moments to take it all in.
But there was no time to rest. We began our walking tour of the cramped ancient city.
At times my memories of bible studies at primary school and Sunday school fought with images and lines from “The Life Of Brian.”
“Now you listen here. He’s not the Special One. He’s a very naughty boy.”
We spent around four hours in Jerusalem. We visited the Armenian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter, and finally the Jewish Quarter. Soon into the tour, we were taken down narrow cobbled streets, with shops selling all kinds of wares and souvenirs. As I spotted a few tacky T-shirts (“Guns & Moses”) I was reminded of my father’s comments about Jerusalem. He was expecting a spiritual enlightening, but instead was dismayed at the amount of “tat” being peddled. Seventy-one years later, it was a lot worse.
I kept looking out for Via Dolorosa. Ossi kept mentioning it. As the day unfolded, it came to light that this was the route taken by Christ as he carried his cross to the site of his crucifixion at Calvary. More of that later.
We passed a little enclave of Ethiopian Jews, and visited their very small church, then stopped at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is where – it is alleged – Christ was crucified. My father had visited here in 1944. This is odd, because I always presumed that Calvary – “there is a green hill far away without a city wall” – was some distance from Jerusalem, but here it was, right in the heart of the old city.
I was overwhelmed by the various facts which Ossi regaled us with. We saw a slab of marble which was used as a resting place for the body of Christ. People were stooping to kiss it and touch it. I wasn’t so sure. My faith was being sorely tested.
All the time my camera was recording these amazing images.
Then, outside, a piece of pure drama.
While Kev, Alan and myself rested outside the large and imposing church, and while we had a little discussion about our beliefs, or lack of them, a microphone was broadcasting a call to Islamic prayer. Then, a little group of Jewish pilgrims carried a cross into the little square and a rabbi began saying a few words too.
Muslim and Jewish prayers were taking place simultaneously outside the church where it is alleged that Jesus Christ was crucified.
Our tour continued around and down, through increasingly small and cramped streets. We entered the Muslim Quarter. Shops seemed busier, the pathways narrower. At last, we entered Via Dolorosa. Ossi spoke about the fourteen Stations of the Cross which marked the half a mile or so that Christ carried his cross, and which today is marked by Via Dolorosa, although the original street would have been many feet below the current level.
So, this is why my father was so specific.
I had kept an image of my father’s photograph of Via Dolorosa on my camera’s memory card. As we walked down, I kept referring to it. I wanted to replicate that image. I would soon be rewarded.
So, here were two images taken by my father and by myself, some seventy-one years apart.
Dad was 21 and I am 50.
As we continued along Via Dolorosa, Ossi came to a point where pilgrims were placing their hands on a stone on a wall to our right. Ossi didn’t sound too convincing as he explained that this is where Jesus Christ touched this very wall. And yet the original street was several feet below us. Call me agnostic on that one. It suddenly dawned on me that I was far less excited about walking the same street as Jesus Christ as walking the very same street that my father had visited in 1944.
We found ourselves at the base of the hill. We were asked to place our goods and chattels through a metal detector and then found ourselves outside the Western Wall. Again, my father had visited here. Alan, Kev and myself donned special souvenir “kippahs” and walked towards the holy wall, which actually abuts the Tomb of the Rock.
It was surreal to visit such a famous and spiritual location.
I honestly can’t remember if I prayed for a win at Tottenham on Sunday.
We made our way back up the hill, through the Jewish Quarter, which tended to contain a greater proportion of newer buildings, before stopping for a bite to eat. While eating, one of our tour party spotted my Chelsea US Tour T-shirt and commented that he was present at our MLS All-Star Game in Chicago in 2006. I responded that I was there, too. What is it I have said about Chelsea World being ridiculously small?
There was one final look over the rooftops of Jerusalem’s sacred centre, and we then retraced our steps up to the Jaffa Gate.
Our little mini-bus then headed south, passing a variety of more modern, and rather sturdy, buildings before things started to get a little tense. We were headed for Bethlehem, which is situated just inside the West Bank. Call me naïve, but I stupidly presumed that Ossi would stay on the bus and we would disappear into Bethlehem for an hour or so before returning to Jerusalem.
It soon became evident that I was wide of the mark, like a Radamel Falcao volley.
Oh no, nothing as easy as that.
Our mini-bus would park on the Israeli side of the security wall, constructed in 2000, and the ten of us were to walk over to the West Bank, where we were to be met by a Palestinian.
Ossi : “Yes, you will meet your guide there. His name is Osama.”
Inside the mini-bus, you could have heard a pin drop.
Ossi : “I will not join you. I will go back to the Western Wall to pray for your safe return.”
He turned to us and smiled. He was likable chap, in his ‘seventies, with a splendid comb-over which resembled a skull-cap, but on this occasion he was laughing alone. We fidgeted a little, then set eyes on the thirty foot security wall which wended its way for quite a considerable way in to the distance.
Ossi pointed us towards a metal fence and we passed through a series of walkways before walking across an expanse of concreted open land. In to the next set of gates, then down a narrow path, to be greeted by a smiling Osama. The ten of us quickly darted into two waiting vehicles, which then drove us – rather quickly – through the narrow streets of Bethlehem. There was a vastly different vibe here. Osama, who was only the driver and not the guide, pointed out two young boys in front of us.
“These Palestinian boys are bad. They throw stones at Israeli police cars.”
We were met by a fantastic guide called George – a Palestinian Christian – who guided us through the various chambers and rooms of the Church of the Nativity, which is a conglomeration of three churches on the very spot, allegedly, where Jesus Christ was born. There was no stable, only caves. We were way underground and mired in Christianity; up to our eyes in the most famous story of them all. To be frank, George was a more compelling and believable guide than Ossi and he listed a whole host of – possible, only possible – pieces of evidence which backed up the notion of a holy birth on that exact spot over two thousand years ago.
Again, my religious side was battling my rational side and I wasn’t sure which would come out on top.
After the visit was over, we darted into a souvenir shop, then sped back towards the security fence. Bethlehem is ridiculously hilly and the buildings perch precariously on the hill tops. Osama walked us up to the gates and pointed us onward. As we crossed “no man’s land”, many Palestinian migrant workers were heading back after a day’s toil in Jerusalem. What happened next, was pure farce.
We found ourselves in a hall, maybe a holding area, and were met with some unmanned turnstiles. There was no way to get through. We spotted a large sliding door, and after a little deliberation, pulled it back, not quite expecting what would greet us. It was another holding area. And more unmanned turnstiles. One chap decided to push his way through, but there seemed to be no way through. And he was stuck. We were all stuck. We had no idea what to do. Go back? What would greet us? After about three or four minutes, at last a voice called out and we piled through the last turnstile, putting our cameras and wallets through a security scanner. More migrant workers walked past. I avoided eye contact, just for safety sake. At last, we spotted Ossi.
We scrambled into the waiting van, and headed back in to Jerusalem.
“Out of my comfort zone there, boys. Don’t mind admitting it. Away games at Tottenham and West Ham will be easy compared to that.”
We were back to the relative comforts of Tel Aviv by 5.45pm.
“Tell you what, Tel Aviv looks bloody normal compared to what we have seen today.”
Back at our hotel, the three of us met up with Tony – now living in my home town of Frome – and we set off for a meal and some beers. Who should spot us but Suk, and we aimed for “Mike’s Place.” We enjoyed a great meal and chatted about Chelsea, Israel and all sorts. I had forgotten, but Suk reminded us that “Mike’s Place” was attacked by a suicide bomber – from Britain – in 2003, and three unfortunate souls were killed. We moved on to another bar, with the laughter flying around, before calling it a night at around midnight.
Alan and Kev were off to the airport in the morning and so, after another fine breakfast, I had some time to kill. I changed into some shorts and headed down to the beach. It was just after 10am, but the sun was already warm. I swam in the Mediterranean Sea and relaxed on the beach. Never before had there been a Chelsea trip quite like this one. The water was lapping at the sandy beach behind me as I remembered all of the family holidays that I had enjoyed with my parents in various Italian resorts, and the sound of the water slowly rolling over the sand brought back a host of memories.
A light lunch was followed by a relaxing time back at the hotel as I waited patiently for four other friends – Pauline, Digger, Fiona, Ronnie – to return. Together, we took two cabs to the local train station before heading back to the airport. Before I knew it, I was looking down on the lights of Tel Aviv, and they slowly disappeared from view as we headed west over the Mediterranean.
The football had only taken up a small part of my three days in The Holy Land. However, I was just so thankful that the football – no, Chelsea – had taken me to see such a scintillating part of our world.
Thank you Israel.