One could almost sense the change in the air.
The feeling of a new beginning could hardly be missed at Bloomfield Stadium on Saturday. A sensation that Hapoel Tel Aviv is about to embark on a fresh chapter in the club’s long and successful history, which had taken a turn for the worse in recent years.
The result of the match hardly seemed significant, although the 2-1 win over Hapoel Ra’anana secured in stoppage time certainly added to the overall atmosphere of optimism.
For the first time in Israeli soccer history, a club run by its fans was taking part in a Premier League match. The official announcement that the HaAdumim (The Reds) fans association had taken over the club from owner Haim Ramon came only minutes after the final whistle to the match, but the supporters came to the stadium already knowing that their team was about to chart a new course.
After a tumultuous few months capped by the controversial transfer of star midfielder Gili Vermouth to arch-rival Maccabi Tel Aviv, it was clear that Ramon’s reign had to end.
Eventually his departure came in meek fashion, with the former Member of Knesset signing the forms while he was away in Germany after days of protests outside his home by Hapoel fans.
The HaAdumim controlled a 20 percent stake of the club since Ramon purchased it from Eli Tabib in July 2012. However, starting from Saturday they are the ones calling all the shots at Hapoel and have the authority to sell Ramon’s 50 percent stake.
For the time being, the club has become an experiment of whether fans can realistically run a team in the Israeli Premier League.
There seems to be little doubt that HaAdumim chairman Barry Ben-Ze’ev, a South Africa native, has all the requisite business and management experience for the job having spent over 30 years in Bank Hapoalim, during which he also served as the bank’s deputy CEO and Chief Financial Officer (CFO), before founding the Woolfson financial consulting company.
However, it remains to be seen if the fans alone have the financial muscle required to build a side that can challenge for trophies in the top flight, which is exactly what is expected of Hapoel every season.
However, that couldn’t damper Ben-Zeev’s excitement after the news became official on Saturday.
“This is a significant step that will lead the club to better and more stable days,” he said. “This is only the beginning of the process but I’m very optimistic that when it ends Hapoel’s future will be secure.”
Ben-Zeev confirmed that Ramon will no longer have any part in the club’s running and called for patience from the fans.
“We have financial problems and we have several ways to solve them,” he explained. “We will prepare a plan for next season. There is no new buyer at the moment and you can’t expect one to arrive overnight. I hope we will ultimately have several alternatives from which to choose.”
It is clear from Ben-Zeev’s words that HaAdumim has no intention of running the club in the long run without considerable financial backing from an outside source.
However, after what the club has been through in recent years, HaAdumim and Ben-Zeev are like a breath of fresh air.
It seems that finally those running the club truly have its best interests at heart.
It may feel like a long time ago now, but the takeover of the club by Ramon and his ownership group was supposed to have steadied the ship following the Tabib era.
Tabib was chased out of the club by the fans, but things scarcely improved under Ramon’s running, if at all.
One or even two bad seasons are far from a tragedy, even for a big club like Hapoel. However, the real concern among the Hapoel faithful was that the past year was only the beginning of a decline that could ultimately see the club drop to depths from which it would take many years to recover.
The installment of Eyal Berkovic as manager at the start of the season ensured there wouldn’t be a dull moment at the club, but his entertaining short-lived tenure came to a sudden end last month when he quit in characteristic colorful manner by sending Ramon a text message reading: “You zero coward, I’ve left.”
Coach Asi Domb, who was one of the reasons behind the friction between the two, was sacked just a few days later and Saturday’s win over Ra’anana was Hapoel’s first under new coach Eli Cohen. It moved Hapoel up to ninth place, seven points clear of the relegation zone, but just two points behind sixth place, which will lead to the championship playoffs at the end of the regular season.
The team clearly still has plenty to play for this season, and showed far greater fighting spirit on Saturday without Vermouth, who left for a transfer fee of 700,000 euros, with Hapoel also receiving several players on loan in return.
The sum received from Maccabi will help Hapoel pay its players until the end of the season, although the future after that remains shrouded in doubt.
Ramon’s 50 percent stake is currently held in trust due to his long legal battle with Tabib. An arbitrator ruled last week that Ramon still has to transfer Tabib NIS 7 million, which as a result has essentially become the asking price for Ramon’s shares.
Anyone buying Hapoel will also have to cover its debts, estimated at NIS 2.5 million a year until 2020.
While HaAdumim could try and follow the path of Hapoel Tel Aviv basketball club, which has proven over recent years that a team can be run successfully by fans, the far larger sums required to keep afloat a topflight soccer side seem likely to deter the association from doing so.
A rich boss has become paramount to achieving success in this day and age, with two-time defending champion Maccabi Tel Aviv having Jewish- Canadian billionaire Mitch Goldhar, Maccabi Haifa enjoying the backing of Jacob Shachar over the past three decades and Hapoel Beersheba thriving under Alona Barkat.
However, after such a depressing period in the club’s history, recent developments mean Hapoel fans can actually dream of a better future.
There are still many question marks hovering over the club, but finally it seems that better days lay ahead.[email protected]