The Israeli Premier League kicked off on Saturday after a dreadful 2011-2012 season, which saw local soccer’s reputation plummet to an all-time low. It was one of the most shallow, poor-leveled games and violent seasons in its modren history – probably a perfect reflection of the country’s disturbing social problems and complexity. Yet soccer is still by far the most popular game in Israel, a country with a sports culture leaving much to be desired.
Israeli media is often criticized as being “stuck in its Tel Avivi bubble,” focusing on the big metroplin center and neglecting the less glamorous heroes from the periphery. This attitude, however, had to be changed at the end of last season when Hapoel Kiryat Shmona, a team from the small city of 23,000 near the border with Leabanon, won its first-ever championship in only its fourth season in the top tier – a small comfort in an insulting year overall for the game.
Trying to get his players motivated for the upcoming season, Kiryat Shmona’s newly hired coach, Gili Landau, showed his players last week the sports page of one of the leading newspapers, which gave them the leading headline, while below that was a short report about local powerhouse Hapoel Tel Aviv.
Landau, himself a former star and “symbol” in Hapoel Tel aviv, knows that even after last year’s triumph, he still needs to eradicate a deeply entrenched feeling of inferiority. But no matter how hard he’ll try, the truth will be that the two big clubs from Tel Aviv, Hapoel and Maccabi, will keep being the focus of much of the intrigue and coverage.
As the season opens there are of course many stories to focus on. From Kiryat Shmona’s hopes of a repeat, through Maccabi Haifa’s appointment as coach of Reuven Atar, the most popular player in the club’s history, to Beitar Jerusalem’s and Bnei Sakhnin’s ongoing financial crises. Yet no team will draw so much media and public attention like the reds and the yellows from Tel Aviv. They have the largest number of season ticket holders (Hapoel with 8,000, Maccabi with 7,000) and both — like always — are setting their eyes on trophies after a summer full of roster changes.
Hapoel Tel Aviv finished last season at second place in the league and won the state cup for the third time in a row. However, the enduring saga between fans and owner Eli Tabib, which led to high-profile protests against him on and off the stands, made it a season they’d rather forget. Although they started the summer with major uncertainty, the fans finally got their wish when Tabib agreed to sell the club to an anonymous invesment group headed by Israeli politican Haim Ramon. Almost immediately, on July 4 (from now on, it’s also Hapoel’s independece day), Ramon announced that he would let the crowd purchase up to 50% of the club’s shares. The fans have raised NIS 1.7 million since then, in the hope of achieving the goal of 6 million.
Though not a precedent in Israeli sports — Hapoel’s basketball team was reestablished in 2007 and run by a supporters’ trust with almost 2,000 registered paying members — Hapoel’s revival saw it transform from a team with an iffy future into a championship contender. Next to follow were the fans of Beitar Jerusalem, who opened a trust in order to try and overcome a large deficit and save their club.
Back to Hapoel: The fans who initially decided to not buy season tickets if Tabib stayed on felt like worthy winners. Hapoel, a club connected historically to the Histadrut labor federation, had always been a club well connected to its supportive fan base. Although it is one of the elite clubs in the country, it still seems sometimes communal and unprofessional – being well under standards in marketing issues. In Hapoel you could find fans walking around the hall in the training ground near Wolfson Hospital, and now they even have a special room where they hold the recruitment process for new members. You might even find there Hapoel’s basketball logistics coordinator making calls from the offices trying to locate apartments for his players. It certainly won’t feel strange to anyone after the two managements signed a cooperation agreement last week.
In contranst to Hapoel’s coziness and familial attitude, just a few hundred meters away, at the Kiryat Shalom neighborhood in south Tel Aviv, lies a totally different atmosphere. Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israel’s most successful club, had long forgotten what success looked like. While its basketball collegues have dominated the scence with 39 championships in the last 42 seasons, Maccabi Tel Aviv F.C has earned just one championship in the past 15 years – in 2003. The team has been owned by Canadian jews since December 2007, primarly by Alex Schnaider and then by Mitch Goldhar, the billionaire businessman who brought Walmart to Canada. Goldhar has spent hundreds of millions of shekels since 2009, but has yet to bring Maccabi a title nor even finish above third place in the league with the league’s highest budget, estimated at between NIS 90-100 million per season.
Yet Goldhar is not here for profits. He has spent and spent, and at the very least, he wants a trophy under his belt. His involvment at the club has been intensive, despite spending most of his time abroad, and criticism of his understanding in managing a football team, a sport which was totally unknown to him four years ago, have emerged. And so, Goldhar decided to make two major changes at the club organizational structure: he hired Jordi Cruyff, son of Dutch football legend Johan, as general manager, a domain held unofficialy by himself till this summer. Another crucial decision was not settling for an Israeli coach anymore and bringing in a new character who’ll be unfamiliar with local media, with the local “combina” culture. The job was eventually given to F.C Barcelona’s former player and youth coach, Oscar Garcia. His Catalan entourage included an assitant coach, a fitness coach, a special advisor and high-tech equipment never used in the laggard methods of local coaching. The new guys on the block took a while to learn what has been going on in Israeli soccer in the last few years, and realized that their squad doesn’t meet the requirements. Ironically, they started aproaching some of Hapoel Tel Aviv’s former stars – Gili Vermouth, Vincent Enyeama and Douglas Da Silva – all part of the double (championship+cup) winning team of 2010, which also enjoyed tremendous success at the European level.
Maccabi may have not been able to win anything under Goldhar, but it has definitely improved the Infrastructure needed for a club in modern soccer – a well-developed website (Hapoel’s website has yet to even update this year’s squad), a weekly press confrence (unlike Hapoel, Maccabi has a very strict interview policy), and other market and proffesional upgrades in its training ground and youth department.
Maccabi Haifa may have become the most successful club (seven championships in the last 12 seasons) and with biggest fan base around the country, but Maccabi Tel Aviv still sees itself as the top club in Israel. Every summer it states its will for winning everything, only to crash quickly and see another wasted year go by. This year’s changes of course do not promise them that this time it will happen, but if Goldhar will not lose his patience due to his large investments and insignificant accomplishments — which haven’t brought him even a modest credit carved on silverware — Maccabi will eventually make it. Almost all of the media in Israel are marking them out as the favorites for the title once again, ahead of the thrilling season opener against Maccabi Haifa in Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa on Monday. You can be sure, however, that if they lose, the Tel Aviv-centered media will already call the new foreign crew “a bluff.”