Israel shuts out Honduras in Citi Field soccer match
Unique atmosphere offers opportunity to reach NYC fan base
NEW YORK -- Yossi Benayoun spoke admiringly about one of his favorite countries before Israel took the field against Honduras on Sunday evening at Citi Field.
"It's one of my favorite places," he said on Friday.
He spoke hopefully of his future, preferably in the United States -- Major League Soccer -- if he has his choice.
Sunday brought a unique atmosphere. Israel's first trip to the United States more than 35 years coupled itself with a one-of-a-kind experience: soccer on a baseball field, between nations whose communities are well-represented in the New York market.
"It was an exciting, excellent atmosphere," Israel head coach Eli Guttman said. "There were about 30,000 people. For me, here in New York, what more can I say?"
Little separated the two sides on the field -- Israel battled to a 2-0 win over Honduras -- and even less in the Citi Field bleachers. The usual blue and orange of the Mets faithful was replaced by a sea of blue and white -- the colors adorning both Israel's and Honduras' flags.
It was more an event than an actual game. The pitch resembled that of a high school, with no more than 15 yards separating the edge of the penalty box from either sideline. The 110-by-70 yard field is legal by FIFA standards, but the bare-minimum quality.
Chants of "Hon-du-ras" echoed from behind home plate, where the bottom half of the diamond -- complete with the dirt infield -- jutted outside the field of play and a tarp featuring the Mets logo covered the pitcher's mound.
"I have a friend playing for the Honduras national team," Rami Gershon said, "so he told me that people from Honduras nation were going to come."
The evening started with New York Knicks big man Amar'e Stoudemire, one of the NBA's few Jewish players, addressing the crowd.
The action on the field that immediately followed, though, was largely uninspired. Rare runs through the middle of the narrow pitch brought the crowd of 26,170 to its feet but a few times in the first half. The two went into the break locked in a scoreless tie.
One of Guttman's few complaints after the game was the width of the pitch. He said it slowed the game down. It helped benefit the team approach he preaches, but kept some of the action at bay and slowed down the skilled Honduras side.
Even so, the crowd bubbled with anticipation. The chants and horns weathered the scoreless first half to erupt when midfielder Hen Ezra placed a beautiful strike in the top left of the net to give Israel a 1-0 lead.
Mevy Azaria, CEO of MCI Sport and the game's organizer, pinpointed New York for the game with a clear objective. He wanted the event to break even -- something 25,000 in ticket sales would do -- and he wanted to get more exposure for the Israeli national team in a heavily Jewish area.
"We needed to find a place where we knew that there would be a lot of Jewish fans to welcome the Israel national team," Azaria said on Friday.
Shimon Abihaziro's goal 14 minutes later energized the crowd again and carried Israel to the finish in its 2-0 victory. With the successful event, Azaria's next step is to delve into other markets with a large Jewish community -- places that haven't had the opportunity to witness the national team firsthand.
The Jewish community may not have shown up in the same droves as the Hondurans, nor were they as raucous early in the game during the scoreless first half, but Guttman couldn't help but joke after the game, pleased with his team's convincing result.
"I saw 30,000 people [wearing] blue and white," Guttman said. "For me, it's OK."