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Hakoah back in play — after 73 years

Local soccer team revives historic Viennese sport club

 
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Sport Club Hakoah of Bergen County trounced its opponents in its most recent outing. The team’s name memorializes the famed Austrian national championship team of 1925-26, forced off the field for good by the Nazis in 1938. Courtesy Ron Glickman

On a recent Sunday night, with darkness all around, a rectangle of bright light illuminated a soccer field, and a small bit of Jewish sports history was replayed as Sport Club Hakoah of Bergen County trounced its opponents, 6-2.

The victory, at the Fairleigh Dickinson University field in Teaneck, was the second in a row for Hakoah, showing that the new team was beginning to gel, said its general manager, Ron Glickman.

More important, the new team honored its namesake, Sport Club Hakoah Wien, which formed in 1909 to give Jewish men in Vienna the chance to participate in high-level sports. The team was Austrian national champion in 1925-26.

The Bergen team is the brainchild of Glickman, who shares managerial and playing duties with his brother, Dov.

The Vienna team built a solid record of wins, taking their league in the 1919-20 season. As the team’s history notes, success brought an invitation to an exhibition series with West Ham of England.

Before a crowd of 40,000, Hakoah battled to a 1-1 draw with West Ham in their home game. Then, in England, it beat Ham 5-1, said to be the first time a foreign club defeated an English team on English soil.

Two seasons later, Hakoah fought its way to the Austrian championship. In a dramatic final game, the goalie, Alexander Fabian, injured a shoulder with the score at 2-2. With his arm in a sling but his legs working fine, he switched to offense, booted a weak shot that deflected off a defender, and scored the winning goal.

A Hakoah tour of the United States in 1926 included a game in the Polo Grounds in Manhattan (it was then the home of both New York Giants teams —baseball and football) before a crowd of 46,000. Warmed by Jewish fans in New York and less anti-Semitism than in Europe, many players signed up with U.S. clubs, taking a toll on Hakoah’s roster. Nazi oppression ended the original team in 1938.

For Glickman, 28, continuing the Hakoah legacy was a dream since he was 17, he said, when he visited the Diaspora Museum in Israel with his father. His great-grandfather saw the original Hakoah play in the Polo Grounds all those decades ago. “I was a soccer fanatic, but I didn’t know our people had such a big part in it,” he said.

Two years ago, Glickman canvassed college team rosters for potential players, contacted friends from Teaneck High School, where he was on the soccer team, and posted flyers in various towns.

The team came together this year and now stands at 20 registered players, he said. The rebuilt Hakoah club competes in the North Jersey Soccer League, which is accredited by the United States Soccer Association. Most of the players are Jewish, said Glickman, coming from Teaneck, Tenafly, Closter, Union City, South Orange, and New York.

The team jersey displays a Star of David and the words SC Hakoah. The SC stands for sport club, and Glickman noted that the original club encompassed several sports, notably swimming, and he hopes the Bergen club will, too.

Speaking of last Sunday’s victory over Emerald, which followed a victory in the game before, Glickman said “it was long overdue.” The players, in their first season, are beginning to click as a team, and “nobody wants to lose momentum,” he said. The team record for the season to date is three wins and four losses.

Although the team has a strong Jewish identity, it also has a multinational flavor. At the game on the FDU field, cheers rang out as Saeed Suleman-Baba, born in Ghana but raised in Saudi Arabia, scored for Hakoah. He was assisted by Mathieu Gouverneur of France.

Asked if the fact that a Muslim who hails from Saudi Arabia is playing for a Jewish team raises any eyebrows, Suleman-Baba said no. “Nothing wrong with that, it’s soccer,” he said.

“We really are a melting pot,” Glickman said, noting languages spoken by team members include Russian, Arabic, Norwegian, Spanish, French, Swedish, and, of course, Hebrew and English. Glickman also speaks Hebrew, learning from his U.S.-born parents and having served in the Israeli army after high school.

One of the Hebrew speakers is Ofir Singal, an Israeli who played in Jerusalem for the professional team Hapoel. “It’s great to play on a Jewish team, with great guys. It’s fun,” he said.

Singal is 45 but says he has no trouble keeping up with the younger players. “I run all the time,” he said. “It’s no problem at all.”

For the players, soccer transcends ethnic boundaries, and for Bergen Hakoah, Jews, Christians, and Muslims play together for the common goal, to win games, said Narel Nahar of Tenafly, team captain.

“It’s a great opportunity to show the community that many religions can play together as one team,” said Nahar, who played professionally in Israel. “As a Jew and an Israeli, it’s very emotional to be able to represent the Jewish community in Bergen County,” he said.

Jonah Silk, 26, found playing for Hakoah a meaningful Jewish experience. “Initially, I missed playing soccer,” said Silk, who played for his alma mater Drew University.

“As I learned more, it fueled a desire to get in touch with my Jewish roots. It became far more significant,” said the South Orange resident. “It feels like you’re part of something special.”

The team relies on sponsors, including El Al, Always Travel of Paramus, and Data Life, a software company.

The next game is scheduled for this Sunday against Real Wyckoff, in Wyckoff. [Visit bergenhakoah.com, www.facebook.com/bergenhakoah, or on Twitter at @bergenhakoah for details.]

 
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