This was not how Maccabi Tel Aviv envisioned the start of its season unfolding.
Instead of preparing for its Champions League group opener, Maccabi is busy regrouping from a disastrous European campaign and the shock exit of its coach before it has even begun the defense of its Premier League title.
Oscar Garcia’s return to the club seemed like the perfect appointment three months ago.
After all, he knew most of the players from his first term as coach in the 2012/13 season and was widely popular among the fans after guiding the yellow-and-blue to its first Israeli championship in 10 years.
However, it all began to unravel sooner than anyone could have predicted.
Oscar walked out on the club last Tuesday, being replaced by fellow Spaniard Pako Ayestaran.
Maccabi’s press release put Oscar’s departure down to the security situation. However, Oscar had a different version of events when he finally explained his decision late Monday night, almost a week after he fled Israel.
Oscar claimed that he did not leave because he was afraid for his safety, but rather because the rocket fire from Gaza had disrupted his job to an extent that he no longer felt he could achieve success with Maccabi.
“The first thing I would like to clarify is that I did not decide to come back home for fear to what could happen because of the conflict that the country was living. The only reason was that I was not able to do my job properly,” he wrote on Twitter.
Oscar explained that the security situation made it difficult to train properly and to bring in new players, as well as forcing the team to host its European matches in Cyprus.
“All of this and many more things that happened, together with personal and family situations, made me decide that the best, both for the team and myself, was to leave.”
Garcia revealed he had already told Maccabi he wanted to leave ahead of the first leg of the Europa League playoffs against Asteras two weeks ago, but he agreed to stay on until the club found a replacement.
Oscar wasn’t out of a job for long, already signing with English Championship side Watford on Tuesday. Watford’s previous coach, Italian Beppe Sannino, only resigned on Sunday, so Garcia clearly didn’t leave Maccabi knowing he would be the next Hornets manager.
However, he must have surely known his services were in demand in the English second division, with Leeds United also making a bid to sign the Spaniard before he chose to join Watford.
Truth be told, Maccabi owner Mitch Goldhar and sporting director Jordi Cruyff didn’t go out of their way to try and convince Oscar to stay.
Whether it was due to Operation Protective Edge or simply that Oscar had come to regret his decision to join Maccabi following its Champions League exit, he looked a shadow of himself over the past three weeks.
He didn’t look like he wanted to coach the team anymore and it affected the performance on the pitch. His resignation allowed Maccabi to cut its losses and bring in someone who truly wants to guide the side.
Goldhar has always insisted that one of the attributes he looks for in a coach is someone who is on the rise and determined to prove his worth.
However, once the Champions League dream had ended, Oscar had little left to achieve at the club this season and with his family returning to Spain and pressuring him to join them, he saw little reason to continue.
Even though Pako is 10 years his senior, he is already showing far more passion for the job than Oscar, tweeting on Tuesday: “Great feelings about Maccabi as a club on my first days in charge of the team!” The 51-year-old has vast experience, serving as an assistant coach at Valencia (2009- 2010, 2001-2004), Benfica (2008-2009), Liverpool (2004-2007) and Tenerife (2000- 2001).
During his time in Spain and England as the assistant of Rafa Benitez, he won two Spanish League titles and a UEFA Cup with Valencia, and claimed the Champions League and FA Cup with Liverpool.
However, he has only been a head coach for the past two years, guiding Mexican second division side Estudiantes Tecos.
Pako seems eager to prove he can cut it in Europe as a head coach and his no-nonsense approach has been refreshing for the players and media alike.
Maccabi may have won his first match at the helm on Sunday, beating Hapoel Tel Aviv 1-0 in Toto Cup action at Bloomfield Stadium.
However, Ayestaran was anything but pleased.
“The result is probably the only good thing we can take from this game,” he said.
“The performance was not good enough.
We’ve got good players but we didn’t play well. There are many things that have to be changed. I expected more, but we were far away from the team I hope we become.”
Compare that to Oscar’s reaction after the team was sent packing by NK Maribor in the Champions League third qualifying round: “We were much better than them but we couldn’t convert our chances and that was the difference.”
While Oscar was looking for excuses, Pako was willing to make an honest assessment of his team’s display and shortcomings.
“The first thing I bring is passion. I am really demanding on myself and I also try to get the same from the people around me,” he said after being unveiled as the new coach on Sunday morning before sending a warning to the squad. “The players have to show they are good enough to be here. As I explained to the players, if you don’t keep yourself on the edge you have no chance.”
With Maccabi not beginning its Premier League campaign until September 14 when it visits Maccabi Petah Tikva, Pako has got plenty of time to work with his players.
He will be able to continue and fine-tune the team in the Toto Cup quarterfinals, which take place in the coming weekend and in the middle of next week before he turns his focus to guiding Maccabi to its third consecutive championship.
Only Maccabi Haifa (2004-06) has managed to win three league titles in a row over the past 50 years. The yellow-and-blue is set to face a stiff challenge from Haifa and Hapoel Beersheba this season, but at least it has improved its prospects over the past week.
Not only has Oscar’s departure not hurt the club’s chances, but it looks to have given the team the jolt it required and combined with Pako’s appointment, puts Maccabi in pole position to maintain its stranglehold on Israeli soccer.