It was September 1993 and regular travel buddy Hamish & I had made our first ever trip to the Middle East and my first adventure outside of Europe.
We soon found ourselves going through The Lion Gate into Jerusalem Old Town……
Immediately we entered, a whole new world opened up for us in the labyrinth of narrow roughly paved streets.
A world of frenetic trade, of follow your leader tour groups, of a mixture of Muslims, Jews & Christians, everybody going about their business in a hurry.
We weaved in and out of the throng down the first alleyway and soon found ourselves in a small square full of Arabic cafés.
Here men drank coffee, played tabula and smoked on weird looking pipes protruding from glass containers filled with bubbling water. Our first sight of what was to become a familiar spectacle.
Even as non-smokers it looked like fun – maybe we would try a shisha pipe at some stage?
Conversation amongst the men was animated – we believed it was friendly, but were not entirely sure at first, as voices were raised and arms waved extravagantly in the air.
When this culminated in riotous laughter and back-slapping we knew it as fine. This was the first time we had heard Arabic spoken at close quarters, but we soon became attuned to the colour and tone of the language. Not one that we would be able to copy very easily though.
Boys Against Men
A group of sandal-wearing small boys played football with goals chalked up on walls at either side of the square, about twenty metres apart. We decided to stand for a while and observe the excited spectacle.
Every now and then the ball clattered into some café dwellers; cue much shouting and scolding. Eventually this happened once too often and the ball was confiscated by the elders.
It was very amusing to watch the ensuing negotiations for the return of the kid’s play thing. The boy’s pleas finally paid off, for what we suspected was a regular occurrence.
That should have been the signal to move on, but a couple of Dutch guys were also watching the kids and they decided that they were going to take them on. As there were twelve under-elevens to contend with, Hamish and I were beckoned to join forces for a Europeans v Arabs match.
Despite our initial reticence, the loud Dutchmen persuaded us to take part. This had not been in my planned itinerary when setting off from Heathrow that morning!
Any advantage that the four challengers possessed size wise, was more than cancelled out by the only rule of the match (ball to stay below the head height of the juniors at all times), the unfamiliar (to us two Brits anyway) heat and the three to one ratio against us, not to mention the boy’s superior skill and fleet of foot.
We soon found ourselves three nil down with high-fives all round every time the children scored – US TV had a lot to answer for.
Our fortunes changed somewhat when a passing Frenchman and Italian joined forces with us. We pulled two goals back, with Hamish remarkably providing an assist when the ball deflected off his knee right into the path of Gianluca, who finished with aplomb from three metres out.
Game on, or it was until the game came to an abrupt and controversial end. Just for once neither Hamish or I were culpable!
Jan & Erwin, the two guys from Holland, exchanged passes and as one of the keen kids rushed forward to attempt a block, Jan took a mighty swing with his right peg and saw the ball cannon off the defender to be sent spinning high into the air. It was like time stood still as the swirling, curling sphere travelled towards the most populated of the outdoor cafés.
As we all stood agog with mouths in fly catching mode, the ball landed with a crash, smack bang in the middle of a glass laden table.
As shrieks emanated angrily from the smokers and coffee drinkers, twelve youngsters magically disappeared in the blink of an eye.
That just left six stunned Europeans to compute the trouble we may now all be in. When an irate café owner or employee charged out of the building wielding a knife, sensible guys may have quickly followed the youngster’s lead and got the hell out of there.
Common sense however prevailed, with the menacing-looking armed guy manically shouting his displeasure directly in our direction, plus the fact that we were surrounded by burly blokes who would surely act as blockers to our escape. This quickly made our minds up unilaterally to stay and face the music.
The first challenge was what to do about the man with the blade. Luckily for us, the café dwellers started laughing at the spectacle of six terrified looking Westerners, who were seemingly just stood there gormlessly awaiting their fate.
This broke the ice, the could be assassin broke into laughter too and put his knife away into his food stained apron. Erwin took this as a signal that all would be OK and bravely sidled over to the cafe, apologising profusely as he went.
The other five of us followed suit and agreed to pay a few dollars each to pay for the collateral damage.
After a couple of kitchen hands had cleared up the mess, we were invited to join a group of blokes for some bitter coffee and a potent shot of liqueur.
The conversation was exclusively football related. I was in my element, but Hamish was somewhat lost for words, apart from answering “West Ham,” when asked his favourite team.
English football was the most popular in Israel, but sadly Manchester City (my team) were virtually unknown in the region at that time. Even more sadly, Manchester United dominated the conversation (predictably & irritatingly referred to as Manchester), try as I might to change the topic if not the subject.
When we eventually got up to go thirty minutes and five shots each later, we were embraced as long-lost friends, with all offers of payment waved aside.
As we said our goodbyes and tottered off a little ropily into the afternoon heat, I had a big grin on my face – I was going to enjoy Israel…….