Israel Football Starting Anew

Spring training, preseason, practice or however you want to call it, last night’s Toto Cup derby match between Hapoel Tel Aviv & Maccabi Tel Aviv had the atmosphere of a regular season Ligat Ha’Al derby. After a long summer of Hamas missile attacks on Israel & the IDF operation Protective Edge in and around the Gaza Strip both of the team’s supporters, players and media members were more than happy to be back at Bloomfield Stadium watching and analyzing the beginning of a new season.

While we’re on the subject of new beginnings it was exactly 10 years ago that I picked myself up with two boys ages 4 & 8 months (my wife had come 3 weeks earlier by herself as she needed to begin work) and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to start our new life in Israel.

Who knew that 10 years later I would be sitting in the press box as a member of the media covering the Israel Football League for my website FootballIsrael.com. If you would have asked me then, I would’ve thought it was a crazy thought one that would never happen in a billion years, but yet here I am living the dream. Living the dream of not only residing in The State of Israel but also the dream of being part of the fabric of Israeli society with people who grew up watching, cheering & rooting for their favourite teams, just as I did in Montreal with the Canadiens & Expos.

My children are now growing up following Israeli sports from football to basketball, from tennis and more, devouring the Yediot Acharonot newspaper sports section at breakfast each morning before heading to school, to watching the sports news and surfing the web trying to find out the latest bits of relevant information.

They collect football stickers of their heroes just as I did with baseball & hockey cards. They get their hands on the latest Goal! or Match! Magazine, clipping the posters and hanging their stars all over their walls, just as I once did. Everything is the same yet everything is so different.

Just as the players were rough around the edges on the pitch, missing open goals, not being able to make the crisp passes as they would mid-season, but it was a start, a new beginning one which had been longed for over the last few difficult months.

Fallen IDF soldiers were Hapoel Tel Aviv supporters-Courtesy Hapoel Tel Aviv Website

Fallen IDF soldiers were Hapoel Tel Aviv supporters-Courtesy Hapoel Tel Aviv Website

Before the match began Hapoel Tel Aviv honored four fallen soldiers who had been supporters of the club. As I sat in the press box, just below me was a teenager holding a jersey framed with his late brother’s name on it. A reminder that life is too fragile, life can take many turns, for the better or for the worse.

The realities in Israel are so much different than they are where I grew up in North America. Our country lives under constant threat from it’s not so friendly neighbors. Our children will serve in the army proudly defending our country, the only one we have. We have no choice.

We fight to live, whereas our enemies live to fight, that is the fundamental difference.

But children filled the stands, as singing continued throughout the 90+ minutes. The mood was a festive one with new Maccabi coach Pako Ayestaran manning the sidelines for the league champions whom had just been eliminated from European competition.

Tal Ben Chaim after his game winning goal-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

Tal Ben Chaim after his game winning goal-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

Lots of chances for both sides littered the first half of play as Maccabi came out of the gate very strong but Hapoel controlled the last 15 minutes or so of the half. It was clear that the players were still getting into playing shape as the near misses will be put into the back of the goal later on in the season. The second half saw more end to end action with Tal Ben Haim finally breaking the deadlock and scoring a magnificent goal to put the visitors up 1-0. And that’s when the fun started.

Dani Amos picks up a red card!-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

Dani Amos picks up a red card!-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

The Reds embattled ‘keeper Dani Amos picked up a foolish red card after the goal for pushing & shoving a Maccabi player and headed for the showers bringing in second choice Tom Almondon and reducing Hapoel to ten men.

Hapoel Tel Aviv fans-Courtesy Hapoel Tel Aviv Website

Hapoel Tel Aviv fans-Courtesy Hapoel Tel Aviv Website

More opportunities for both sides kept coming but in the end Maccabi picked up the Toto Cup victory with a close 1-0 win that sent all the fans home happy. Yes even the losing side Hapoel’s supporters left upbeat, knowing that in truth they had won too.

Pako Ayestaran manning the Maccabi sidelines-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

Pako Ayestaran manning the Maccabi sidelines-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

At the postgame press conference new Maccabi boss Pako Ayestaran was asked what he was able to take from the match and he clearly said, “The best thing we can take out of this game is the atmosphere.”

Football had won. Football was back.

Maccabi Tel Aviv Correcting The Mistakes

Maccabi v Asteras Scoreline-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

Maccabi v Asteras Scoreline-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

Maccabi Tel Aviv crashed out of Europe last night going home on aggregate with Asteras Tripolis 3-3, though Maccabi won the “home” leg 3-1, but lost the away match 2-0 in Greece. With Maccabi not making it through to the UEFA Europa League group stages, there will be no Israeli representatives in any of the European Competitions this season. After Maccabi had won the domestic league title for the second straight year, this coming campaign with returning head coach Oscar Garcia was supposed to be an opportunity to better their Europa League knock out round appearance last year when they were defeated by Basel FC.

Unfortunately it was not to be as Maccabi Tel Aviv never quite had the chance to do so for many reasons, none more important than the 50 day war between Hamas terrorists in Gaza and Israel. The conflict sent all of Israel’s European representatives to Cyprus in order to play their “home” games in front of very few fans. Is this the biggest reason for their failure? Yes. Is this the only reason for their failure? Absolutely Not.

Jordi Cryuff-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

Jordi Cryuff-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

Going into technical director Jordi Cryuff’s third year at Maccabi, hopes were running high as the squad under last year’s head coach Paulo Sousa played at even a higher level than they did in Cryuff’s first year when Oscar Garcia was at the helm. With Garcia coming back after a year at Brighton in the English Championship the stage was set for the Spaniard to direct the club he began shaping a year earlier into the UEFA Champions League. A chance to take the Israeli side a step closer to becoming a European power similar to it’s basketball compatriot would not be an easy task but one Cryuff & Garcia thought he would be able to navigate.

But then it all started to go wrong.

Jack Angelides-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

Jack Angelides-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

Cryuff in the past had been able to bring in quality players during the summer & winter transfer periods but was unable to pick up a game changing player as qualification grew near. At the same time owner Mitch Goldhar’s representative, Cypriot Jack Angelides left to become president of PAOK in Greece, leaving a huge vacuum that had been the strong arm behind Maccabi. Without Angelides’ presence behind the scenes there was a lack of direction that Cryuff would have to contend with himself.

Eden Ben Basat-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

Eden Ben Basat-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

Though Cryuff was able to bring in Israeli striker Eden Ben Basat from Toulouse and midfielder Nosa Igiebor from Real Betis it happened very late in the game for Coach Garcia to really implement his methodical offense. The Israeli international and former Hapoel Tel Aviv man respectively, arrived just in time for the Champions League 3rd round qualification matches against Maribor and never had a chance to fit into the team and direction that Garcia was preaching.

Not only were the additions made late in the game, but unfortunately, Cryuff was unable to bring in a top foreign player that could have made a true impact in Maccabi’s fortunes and when the war really started up there was almost zero chance that a top level player would come to Israel.

Maccabi Suppoters in Cyprus-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

Maccabi Suppoters in Cyprus-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

Getting back to the war, with no real home games in Tel Aviv and having to play in Cyprus only a few hundred supporters made the trek to see Maccabi and though they may have cheered at 120% it would never be enough compared to 13-14k at a raucous Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv. Yes, the 12th man does make a huge difference in aiding a club and that fact can not be discounted. Not only did that play a factor but also that the team had to train when in Tel Aviv under constant air raid sirens going off that can assuredly not be conducive in preparing for some of the most important matches of the year.

Oscar Garcia-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

Oscar Garcia-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

As well, Garcia, who had been worried two years earlier during the Amud Anan operation which set off sirens in the Tel Aviv area and had been pressured by his family then to leave Israel could not give 100% of his abilities during this current campaign.

One can say he was earning a lot of money and as a professional he should have stuck it out and not abandoned his team by leaving for the second time in a 15 month period, but reality is that family for a foreigner in a country of conflict is going to be more important than his sticking around feeling queasy. Was this the only reason he left? No, there are reports that he had some disagreements over player personnel and was upset with Angelides moving on, plus some opportunities in England opened up that weren’t available earlier in the year, but the war was certainly a huge factor, and one can’t blame him for that.

But at the end of the day, along with all the issues above, Jordi Cryuff made one huge, glaring mistake in the whole process by going back in time. More often than not, you can never recreate the magic that existed in the past and in the case of Maccabi taking Oscar Garcia back, this move was going backwards and not forwards.

We know that Cryuff and Garcia are close and Jordi’s comfort level with Garcia is key, however, this error to me was perhaps the biggest mistake in a reign that has been almost error free.

Jordi, Oscar & Jack-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

Jordi, Oscar & Jack-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

One could see that under Garcia this time around Maccabi looked sluggish and not as crisp as they did last season under Sousa or the year before when Garcia had been the bench boss. Garcia laid the foundation with Cryuff and Sousa proved to be a most worthy replacement one that was able to take Maccabi to the next level both on and off the pitch.

Once it was clear that Sousa was leaving Cryuff had to think about who would be able to take the club to further heights with another chance to make it into the Champions League, but settled on comfort rather than confidence. It seems he has now corrected this wrong by bringing in Pako Ayestaran who worked for many years under Rafa Benitez and is a brilliant football mind both in physical and mental development but will have to wait yet another year to get another crack at Europe.

With that in mind the question will now be which players if any move from Maccabi to other clubs in a Europe. Who will stay and who will go. Could ‘keeper Juan Pablo be on his way out after some weak efforts thus far? Certainly as Israel National team keeper Ariel Harush is available. Helsinki has already made a move to pick up Rada Prica for their Europa League run and Paulo Sousa & Basel have never hidden their desire to bring in top midfielder Eran Zahavi.

Pako Ayestaran-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

Pako Ayestaran-Courtesy Maccabi Tel Aviv Website

The club Ayestaran saw taken out by Asteras may not be the same squad he inherits when the Israel Football Season starts in 2 weeks, but he will certainly have one of the better equipped teams in Israel with only Maccabi Haifa & Hapoel Beer Sheva being rivals for the Champions League 2nd round qualification spot.

In what could be Jordi Cryuff’s final season at Maccabi it would be prudent for owner Mitch Goldhar to begin the process of continuation for the day after in order to ensure that the yellow and blue don’t fall back further in time once the year ends. Could Ayestaran be the man to guide Maccabi on and off the pitch for years to come? Potentially yes. But the jury is still out as he has yet to be formally introduced as Maccabi’s new coach. As they say, only time will tell.

Puma Israel And Beitar Jerusalem Join Forces

Beitar Jerusalem's New Kits!

Beitar Jerusalem’s New Kits!

Yesterday Beitar Jerusalem unveiled their brand new kits manufactured by Puma at their season opening press conference at the VIEW celebration hall in Talpiot! The club move to Puma as the Puma brand has made strives in the past few years to increase their visibility in the football market. This year Puma will also be producing English Premier League outfit Arsenal kits and training wear along with the Italy National Team and Borussia Dortmund among others.

Menachem Koretzky, Beitar Jerusalem's new coach

Menachem Koretzky, Beitar Jerusalem’s new coach

The opening event also introduced Menachem Koretzky as Beitar Jerusalem’s new coach along with new signing Hannan Maman. Owner Eli Tabib who also maintains a residence in Miami, Florida spoke for a few minutes on the importance of the club building from the foundation up and of course about their new relationship with Puma.

Guy Denman, head of Puma Israel also spoke at the festive event and The Sports Rabbi spent a couple of minutes with Mr. Denman whose family originally hails from Argentina talking about this monumental happening!

Yalla Beitar!

Cheeky Backheel Podcast June 24 2014


Right click here to download The Cheeky Backheel Podcast from June 24, 2014

Roy Jankelowitz, reporter for Israel Sport and the man behind the fantastic Facebook Page HaShishit B’Europa joined me on the Cheeky Backheel Podcast to talk Football Israel!

On tap were the signings of Eyal Golasa with Paok, will this mean Eran Zahavi will leave? Israelis Abroad, rumours & more! We also talked about Israeli clubs about to emabrk on their European adventures both for UEFA competitions & training camps! And lastly we discussed the World Cup thus far!

Cheeky Backheel Podcast June 10 2014


Right click here to download The Cheeky Backheel Podcast from June 10, 2014

Roy Jankelowitz, reporter for Israel Sport and the man behind the fantastic Facebook Page HaShishit B’Europa joined me on the Cheeky Backheel Podcast to talk Football Israel!

Yossi Benayoun Comes back to Israel!

Yossi Benayoun Comes back to Israel!

We discussed Maccabi Haifa’s tremendous off season with the signing of Israel International Yossi Benayoun, Mohammadou Idrissou & Vladimir Stojković. Maccabi Tel Aviv, Oscar Garcia, Paulo Sousa & Eran Zahavi were next to be analyzed and of course we talked Eyal Berkovic and Hapoel Tel Aviv. We also touched on Beitar Jerusalem and what they may do over the next month.

Lastly we congratulated the U-19 Israel National Team for making the UEFA Euro Tournament this July in Hungary, plus we make our World Cup picks!

Cheeky Backheel Football Israel Podcast June 3 2014


Right click here to download The Cheeky Backheel Podcast from June 3, 2014

Roy Jankelowitz, reporter for Israel Sport and the man behind the fantastic Facebook Page HaShishit B’Europa joined me on the Cheeky Backheel Podcast to talk Football Israel!

We ran down the latest news about Oscar Garcia returning to coach Maccabi Tel Aviv after a sabbatical at Brighton, the Israel National Team after defeating Honduras and losing to Mexico & Israel legend Eyal Berkovic becoming Hapoel Tel Aviv’s technical director.

We also discuss Yaniv Katan and retirement talk, Israel International Yossi Benayoun’s potential return to Israel & Maccabi Haifa and Sepp Blatter’s appearance in the Holy Land! Plus we talk about Beitar Jerusalem, potential players heading to Europe and more!

Israel Demolishes World Cup Bound Honduras

Israel National Team-Courtsey Israel Football Association

Israel National Team-Courtsey Israel Football Association

What can you say? Was this the same Israel National team that played just a few days ago against Mexico? Is this the same squad that got splattered 3-0 by a Mexican side heading to the World Cup? Was Honduras just that bad? Shouldn’t Israel be in the World Cup and not Honduras after embarrassing the Central American side 4-2?

Those are just some of the questions that you could ask after seeing a totally different Israel National team than the one we have seen so many times over the past couple of years.

Israel came out very tentatively the first 20 minutes, but then turned on the jets and dominated a totally overmatched Honduras team almost in their own backyard of Houston, Texas with fabulous play by primarily domestic based Israeli players.

Eran Zahavi in action-Courtesy Israel Football Association

Eran Zahavi in action-Courtesy Israel Football Association

Goals scorers Eran Zahavi of Maccabi Tel Aviv, an own goal that was set up by the aforementioned Zahavi & glanced off the Honduras defender from a shot by forward Tal Ben Haim also of Maccabi Tel Aviv, Omer Damari & Gili Vermut of Hapoel Tel Aviv all showed that perhaps, just perhaps Israelis playing at home in Israel instead of going to European countries to ply their trade is not such a bad idea.

That of course is helped by the fact that Maccabi Tel Aviv is operated as a top level European club and Damari & Vermut are levels above most other domestic Israelis and are being rumored to go ply their trade in bigger and better leagues.

But the differences that littered the pitch was that of a confident Israel National Team, confident in their abilities, confident in their play and confident in their teammates is a vast change from prior matches that we have seen the team play.

Tal Ben Haim had a strong match-Courtesy Israel Football Association

Tal Ben Haim had a strong match-Courtesy Israel Football Association

Interestingly enough was that Israel’s top two goal scorers from World Cup Qualifying, Eden Ben Basat & Tomer Hemed were both not playing in this match, and Israel was still able to control the tempo of the match and put up 4 goals! Now when was the last time that happened?

With about three months before Belgium invades Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium for the first Euro 2016 qualifier, Israel will feel good about this dominating win, except that Belgium, Wales & Bosnia are not Honduras. Honduras is a quality side, but not in the same league as European countries in size and strength and that is where Israel is still lagging behind.

So, will we see the team we did last night against Honduras or a much more careful and tentative squad with bigger forwards and more caution?

Eli Gutman will have a lot of thinking to do-Courtesy Israel Football Association

Eli Gutman will have a lot of thinking to do-Courtesy Israel Football Association

As coach Eli Gutman said after the game, “I have a lot of food for thought before the game against Belgium in September, and I believe we will be ready. We applied pressure today and were responsible with the ball and scored four goals.”

Gutman certainly does have some things to think about and what type of lineup he should play in Israel’s first Euro qualifier. What will he do and who will he play will be the big question as we head into the summer months.

What do you think Eli Gutman will do?

Contrasting Football Israel’s Youth And Senior National Team And The Magic of Michael Nees

Israel U-19's celebrating! Courtesy Israel Football Association

Israel U-19′s celebrating! Courtesy Israel Football Association

Israel’s U-19 squad qualified for the European Championships in Hungary at the end of July with a win over Georgia 1-0. The victory over Georgia coupled with a 4-0 win over Cyprus and 1-0 against Switzerland gave the U-19′s under coach Eli Ohana one of the 7 tickets available for the 2014 Championships which run from July 19-30. Yossi Benayoun who was on the last team that made it to the Euros 17 years ago said, “it’s important to continue to invest in the youth and to understand that our (Israel) football has a good base and a promising future.”

While that may be 100% true and correct, the senior National team readies itself for their 2nd friendly in North America, playing Honduras in Houston Sunday night after getting thrashed at the Azteka in Mexico City against a World Cup bound Mexico team 3-0. In a certain sense the two teams are exact opposites. The youth division seems to be heading in the right direction and the senior team heading the wrong way. Coach Eli Gutman will make some wholesale changes tonight inserting Bibras Natcho into the starting lineup among other changes, but the general direction of the National team is troubling to say the least.

Eli Gutman contemplating the National Team-Courtesy Israel Football Association

Eli Gutman contemplating the National Team-Courtesy Israel Football Association

Yes, Gutman deserved another chance managing them as there was really no other alternative, and yes he is going to attempt to inject some younger, newer players that have gone through the youth system, but there seems to be a lack of cohesiveness between the players and with a game against Belgium looming just 3 months away, Israel’s Euro 2016 campaign may end before it begins. The match against Honduras may be the last chance Gutman gets to see his charges playing as a team before the games begin in September and that reality must be very tough one for him to look at.

But when I look at the Israel National teams and their progress at the youth level, I keep thinking about what kind of find German Michael Nees was for Israel and his instant impact as technical director of the whole Israel youth system has been. Nees, who is coaching the U-21 team after Guy Luzon left to take the helm at Belgium outfit Standard Liege, has his imprint all over the youngsters as he was also in attendance in Nyon to see the U-19′s advance to the Euros. A veteran of managing in Africa and the Rwanda national team his addition to the staff by Avi Luzon has been a stroke of genius.

Michael Nees-Israel Football Association's Technical Director

Michael Nees-Israel Football Association’s Technical Director

Nees has not only been able to elevate the professionalism of the players but has instilled a confidence across the board that yes, Israel can be a footballing power in Europe and the world. If countries as small or even smaller than Israel can produce top level footballers, there should be absolutely no reason for Israel not to be able to do the same or even better. Israel, a leader in technology, medicine, pharmaceuticals & more should also have the ability to train and nurture athletes who can be at the peak of their sport.

As Michael Nees continues his quiet work and as the youth players continue to mature and move up the national team ladder, Israel is setting itself up for success for years to come and is giving those youth the skills needed to become professionals in every sense of the word. With that hope comes the opportunity to position themselves as the leaders of the next generation of Israeli footballers and excel where others have not.

Football Israel Ligat Ha’al Championship/relegation Rounds May 17 2014

Maccabi Tel Aviv 4-1 Bnei Sakhnin

Eran Zahavi put his stamp on Maccabi’s season and proved his point that he is the league’s most valuable player by scoring a hat trick and leading the champions to yet another victory. Yoav Ziv also scored for the yellow and blue who were wearing their third jerseys(white) on this night and Muhamed Calibat gave the visitors their lone goal of the game.

Hapoel Tel Aviv 4-2 Kiryat Shemona

Hapoel Tel Aviv ended their year on a good note with a solid win over upstart and State Cup winners Kiryat Shemona. Lukas Sasha started the scoring for the Reds as Gili Vermut scored a brace and Ori Cohen added the 4th goal for the home side playing in Netanya. Kiryat Shemona received goals from Roie Kehat who has been red hot the last few weeks and Rodgers Cola.

Hapoel Beer Sheva 1-1 Maccabi Haifa

Beer Sheva cemented second place in Ligat Ha’Al with a 1-1 draw with Maccabi Haifa at Vassrmil stadium. Glynor Plet scored for HBS and Ruben Rayos evens the match in the 44th minute to split the points and end the season.

Football Israel Ligat Ha’al Championship/relegation Rounds May 13-14 2014

Maccabi Haifa 2-2 Maccabi Tel Aviv

Maccabi Haifa closed Kiryat Eliezer stadium with a 2-2 draw against Maccabi Tel Aviv giving Hapoel Tel Aviv the final European qualification place. A brace from Ruben Rayos and another from Eran Zahavi concluded the scoring at the fabled pitch as the two Haifa squads will move into the brand new Sami Ofer Stadium in southern Haifa beginning next season.

Bnei Sakhnin 1-3 Hapoel Tel Aviv

The Reds secured their place in Europe and smashed an overmatched Sakhnin club 3-1 at Doha Stadium in the Israeli Arab Town. Omer Damari scored two goals and Besart Abdurahimi slotted home the other as Mor Shoshan gave the home crowd of 1000 people their joy for the evening.

Kiryat Shemona 3-0 Hapoel Beer Sheva

Kiryat Shemona is closing the season strong as the northern club beat up Hapoel Beer Sheva 3-0. Adrian Rotchet, Yoel Chejanavich & Rodgers Kola scored for Kiryat Shemona pulling the club to within 3 points of Beer Sheva and 2nd place overall in the Ligat Ha’Al.