Choosing sides in Tel Aviv

Dov Halickman Photography

Half the city loves him and half the city hates him. American Aaron Schoenfeld has become an unlikely Israeli soccer icon, as Bobby Warshaw found out.

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Tall, slender, and blonde, he sticks out on the streets. He walks gracefully, with a posture that exerts confidence and vigor, a persona that you either appreciate or despise. His voice has a twang that doesn’t come around these parts often. Nobody thinks twice or needs to ask who he is. They know. He’s been all over the front pages. Half the town hates him and half loves him, depending on which colors you support. He’s Hapoel’s new striker, their new leading man, though nobody is exactly sure how, why or if he’s any good at all.

It’s been a wild two weeks for Aaron Schoenfeld. He came on a whim, unsure if he wanted to play in Israel at all, having to be convinced by his agent. He had a contract offer on the table from Columbus Crew SC, one with which he felt perfectly happy. A native of Knoxville, Tenn., he’d never been abroad before; Israel, of all places to pop the cherry, felt nuts. “I just wanted to play. I was behind a league MVP [Kei Kamara] in Columbus,” he admits. A month later, he signed with one of Israel’s biggest clubs, Hapoel Tel Aviv, and has committed his future there, agreeing to a deal that covers the next two and a half years.

You tell people you’re going to Israel, and they all wish you good luck. It’s not as much an “I hope you have a good time” as an “I hope to see you again.”

It’s considered to be a dangerous place, Israel, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Walk the streets of Tel Aviv and you feel safer than any afternoon stroll in New York or Chicago or San Francisco. There are only two places you really don’t want to be, a local Tel Aviv resident warned: walking around the West Bank alone, because there’s a nasty trend of people getting randomly stabbed lately, and wearing Hapoel red in the Maccabi section of the Tel Aviv derby. And perhaps, he warned, you would prefer the first over the latter. “So you’re saying I should sell my ticket?”

The already contentious - apparently, slightly scary - derby was escalated by Aaron’s presence. When he got to Israel on Jan. 2, he started with a smaller club, Maccabi Netanya. He quickly impressed, scoring a hat trick in a friendly on his first day of training. Word spread around Israel of the new import. As both Aaron and his agent admit, it was largely helped by his basic appearance: tall, strong, fast, angry. Israel develops wonderfully gifted technical players, but tall, strong, fast, and angry isn’t exactly a big part of the player pool.

Dov Halickman Photography

Within two weeks, bigger clubs came asking. After just two games for Maccabi Netanya - a total of 110 minutes - two of Israel’s biggest clubs, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Tel Aviv, had submitted bids for Aaron. Hapoel won its Europa League group in 2009-10 and played in the Champions League group stages in 2010-11; Maccabi played in the Champions League group stage this season with Chelsea, Porto and Dinamo Kiev, but didn't earn a single point.

In MLS, you hope to win. You get a $300 bonus if you do, and being in the playoffs is more fun than not. With whatever new club he would chose, Aaron had a real potential to play in Champions League. The actual, could-be-on-the-field-in-a-real-competitive-game-against-Barcelona Champions League.

As he strolls through town, men at tables outside coffee shops shout their feelings. Half scream “Welcome Aaron! F*** Maccabi!” and half scream “F*** you!”

- Bobby Warshaw

Aaron's decision carried ramifications he could have never understood. Both Hapoel and Maccabi, the latter of which is run by Johan Cruyff’s son, Jordi, wanted him, and he would have to choose. Both giant, historic clubs; both, at this point, just a name to him. A person here for two weeks can’t understand 100 years of hatred.

Aaron chose Hapoel. The club offered him more guaranteed years, whereas Maccabi only promised him one. In contract speak, that’s Hapoel telling you that they really believe in you, whereas Maccabi was giving him a ‘we aren’t quite totally sure about you’ tryout. While both were privileged options, the choice handled itself.

Half the city loved him, half the city hated him.

“I didn’t get recognized this much in four years in Columbus,” he jokes, though not joking at all. As he strolls through town, men at tables outside coffee shops shout their feelings. Half scream “Welcome Aaron! F*** Maccabi!” and half scream “F*** you!”