Israeli soccer clubs might kick out Shabbat matches

Shabbat afternoon soccer has become more than just a sporting event; it is a societal fixture. It is for this reason that a move underfoot to transfer the games from Saturday afternoon to another day of the week has merited front-page headlines and prominent coverage in the Hebrew media. On the surface, such a change would seem the equivalent of revising the recipe for falafel or outlawing the use of grills on Yom Ha'atzmaut.

But, said Amir Ben-Porat, a Ben-Gurion University sociologist who studies the role of sports in society, the actual impact of changing days "would be like moving a picture on a wall. People will notice that part of the wall is a little whiter but in the end would get used to it."

Ben-Porat said that a good number of players are traditional Jews.

"I know of players who walk to the field on Shabbat, or who ask the team bus to wait another 30 minutes after the game before leaving the stadium, so as not to desecrate Shabbat. Some players put on tefillin, almost all kiss the mezuzah."

And this says nothing about the fans. The kippah-wearing soccer fan who goes to synagogue Shabbat morning and to a football match in the afternoon has turned into almost a sociological phenomenon.

"I've gone to games and seen people ask the ushers not to tear their tickets, because it desecrates Shabbat," he said. For these people, moving the games to another day would be a boon.

The question is whether this would also translate into a boon for the clubs, which suffer from chronic low attendance levels. Ben-Porat spoke of a dichotomy between the number of people who talk about soccer, who read about it and watch it on television, and those who actually go to see a game.

"Only a very small percentage of the population actually go to the games. There are no firm numbers, but it is something like 12 percent of the population who go watch a game once a month — which is very small in comparison to other countries. When 4,000 to 5,000 people come to see a game in Beersheva, it is considered a lot."

Ehud Federman, treasurer of Betar Jerusalem, said that this year Betar — the near-mythic Betar — sold a total of 2,000 season tickets.

"Israelis like their sport from the armchair," Federman said. "They don't participate, and they don't go watch games. They watch on television, read about it in the papers, talk about it in coffee houses. They know everything about it, but they don't come out."

Which explains to a large extent why, in Federman's terms, nearly every club in the country is "in horrible financial condition."

This also explains why the initiative to transfer the games is coming — at least publicly — from the Israel Football Association and not the religious parties.

"The vantage point here is strictly economic," Federman said, "not sentimental. If more tickets can be sold during the week than on Shabbat, why not? We are in favor of everyone getting along."

The association is commissioning a survey to gauge the impact a move to Friday, Sunday or midweek games would have on ticket sales. He was also scheduled to meet United Torah Judaism MK Avraham Ravitz, the head of the Knesset Finance Committee, to discuss the issue.

In this country, where everything is put into a religious-secular context, Ravitz stressed that the initiative for playing on days other than Shabbat came from the football association, not the religious parties.

"This is not our initiative," Ravitz said. "I don't think we have to buy the Shabbat with money. It is something to which there would be no end.

"First football clubs, then factories, then malls will come asking for money to stay closed on Shabbat. The Shabbat is a gift we received. We don't have to buy it with money."