Maccabi Haifa stand tall despite defeat on night full of emotion | Maccabi Haifa

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Across from the main stand at the deserted AEK Arena, the sight of 1,400 blue and white balloons swaying in the evening breeze stood as a reminder of Israel’s pain. Here in Larnaca, Maccabi Haifa were playing for more than three points in their Europa League group. That they almost got them on a night laced with emotion, pushing Villarreal to the limit before the Spanish team fought back from a goal down to win 2-1, mattered less than remembering the 1,400 innocent people murdered by Hamas on 7 October.

Haifa, Israel’s most diverse club, could not forget. While the memory of the atrocities committed by Hamas are raw, the trauma still present, the spirit remains strong, the symbolism of those balloons capturing it. With the colours of the Israeli flag on show and the Star of David proudly displayed in the middle of the arrangement, Haifa made sure to deliver their message.

In truth the Israeli champions would rather not have had to travel to Cyprus to play for the first time since 5 October. Domestic football is on hold and the word from back home was that a fretful public could not believe two of their biggest sides were involved in European competition. Maccabi Tel Aviv were in action too, having travelled to Poland for an away game against the Ukrainian side FC Zorya Luhansk in the Europa Conference League. But with innocent Palestinians being killed as Israel battles Hamas, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza increasing and sirens warning Israeli towns of incoming rockets, nobody was thinking about football’s power to bring the world together as Haifa and Villarreal kicked off.

Early in the day a video on Haifa’s social media channels displayed old images of fans at the club’s home, the Sammy Ofer Stadium. Haifa, a team of Jews, Christians, Arabs and Druze, lost 49 fans on 7 October. Five more were dragged into Gaza and are among the hostages being held by Hamas.

“The mind is not here,” Sean Goldberg, the Haifa defender, had said at the team’s hotel in Larnaca on Wednesday. Haifa have barely trained during the past month. They did not expect to take anything off Villarreal, even though the La Liga side have underwhelmed this season. This was supposed to be a home game for Haifa but it had to be played on neutral territory for security reasons and took place behind closed doors.

The streets around the ground were empty, the atmosphere nonexistent. Haifa arrived at 5.56pm local time, unmarked police cars escorting them inside, but it was quiet. Members of the media milled around. Stewards had little to do. Police officers stood watching for any threats but it was quiet. Most people in Larnaca seemed unaware that a game was taking place. There were no locals lining the streets and hoping to catch a glimpse of the team buses.

For all the weirdness of the occasion, though, Haifa still had motivation. If they could, they wanted football to be an escape for themselves and their fans. But there was no escaping the reality of the situation. Before kick-off, Haifa’s coaches held two Israeli flags aloft as the starting XIs gathered for a minute’s silence in memory of Hamas’s victims.

“We stand in memory of 1,400 Israelis,” came the message over the Tannoy. “Men, women, kids and babies murdered by Hamas in the evil terrorist attack on 7 October. May their memory be with us for ever. Am Yisrael Chai.”

Abdoulaye Seck celebrates after scoring for Maccabi Haifa against Villarreal.
Abdoulaye Seck celebrates after giving Maccabi Haifa a surprise lead against Villarreal. Photograph: Petros Karadjias/AP

It could have been a moment of unity. Only nine Villarreal players were in the centre circle, though. Ilias Akhomach and Aïssa Mandi stayed away. Akhomach, a Spanish winger, is of Moroccan descent. Mandi, a 32-year-old defender, is an Algeria international. “I focus on my team, my people,” Messay Dego, Haifa’s manager, said afterwards. “I will not disrespect them or their club.”

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A thrilling game was played in a good spirit. Villarreal inevitably dominated possession and created the early opportunities, only for Haifa to take a shock lead after a lengthy VAR check revealed that Abdoulaye Seck was onside when he headed Lior Refaelov’s free-kick past Pepe Reina in the 30th minute.

Haifa were immediately under pressure after the Senegalese player’s goal. There was an astonishing sequence after Ben Brereton Díaz, the former Blackburn striker, won a penalty for Villarreal. Alexander Sørloth’s spot-kick was turned away by Shareef Keouf, who celebrated wildly before the officials ordered a retake after deciding that the goalkeeper had come off his line. No matter. Keouf simply got up and saved Manu Trigueros’s penalty.

The 22-year-old goalkeeper continued to shine in the second half, making countless stunning stops. Keouf is of Arabic origin, which underlines Haifa’s inclusive spirit. The defiance, though, only went so far. Haifa, who are bottom of Group F with one point from three games, tired and Villarreal broke through with late goals from Álex Baena and Sørloth.

Dego, an Ethiopian Jew, could not have asked for more from his players. They were shattered when they gathered in a huddle after the final whistle. The balloons were still there but it was time to go home. Time to remember again.

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