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Photo by: Adi Avishai
A Message From Garcia
By DON BARNETT
02/14/2013
The history of foreign coaches who have launched their wares in Israel is a long and muddled one.
 
After six months of incessant and microscopic scrutiny by the media, Oscar Garcia sees his Maccabi Tel Aviv team sitting atop the Israeli Premier League and appears poised to shatter the myth that foreign coaches are not equipped to coach Israeli soccer players because of the divergence of cultures.

Oscar was swayed by his former teammate Jordi Cruyff, Maccabi’s Sporting Director, to leave his seemingly secure post as the coach of the Barcelona youth team to embrace the challenge of restoring Maccabi Tel Aviv to its days of glory.

He has shown increasing comfort and resolve in acclimatizing himself to the new post, while in the process overcoming frequent roster shuffling moves wielded by Cruyff which might have easily unsettled most Israeli coaches.

The history of foreign coaches who have launched their wares in Israel is a long and muddled one. In the days of the British Mandate and for several decades following the establishment of the State, many foreign coaches flocked to Israel. Theses coaches enjoyed varying degrees of success but their stays were generally brief.

Still, they deserve much credit in that they imparted the benefit of their knowledge and insight to Israeli coaches in the making, and spurred Israeli soccer to flourish and take on greater significance. A paradigm shift took place in the 80’s with the emergence of the Wingate Institute as a major training facility for aspiring coaches.

With the proliferation of Israeli coaches in the marketplace, the influence of foreign coaches in Israel waned to the point that they became virtually extinct during the 90’s.

Notwithstanding the growing predominance of Israeli coaches, two events occurred near the end of the century which demonstrated that the confidence of some Israeli soccer decision makers in foreign coaches remained unshaken. The first such event was the arrival of the Czech Dusan Uhrin, who successfully guided Maccabi Haifa to the UEFA Cup quarterfinals in 1999.

The second was perceived to be a high water mark in the revival of foreign coaches in Israel and occurred the following year when the veteran Danish coach, Richard Nielsen, was hired to direct the national team. During his two-year term, Nielsen narrowly missed bringing the team to the European Championships, but his tenure was cut short by the hiring of the highly popular and successful Avram Grant. Following his departure, Nielsen commented in several interviews that he found many of the players on the squad were not performing at an optimal level because of their compromised mindset or conditioning.

Another foreign coach who echoed this sentiment in a more vivid way is the German legend Lothar Matthaus, who was handed by the former owner of Maccabi Netanya, Daniel Jammer, the task of molding the club’s players in the Bundesliga tradition. Lothar himself presented a baffling and yet comical paradox, spending much of his time courting beautiful young ladies in the night spots of Munich, but also acting like a marine corps sergeant on the training field.

During one of Lothar’s weekly forays into Munich during the season, I engaged him in a spirited discussion. Lothar shared with me his frustration and dismay over the demeanor of many of Netanya’s players. He drew a contrast between Bundesliga players he knew and their Israeli counterparts.

He quipped that the mindset of a Bundesliga hopeful is mainly focused on the discipline of the sport, featuring long training sessions and a quest for superb physical conditioning.

By contrast, most Israeli players tend to treat soccer as a collateral source of reveling in the company of attractive models and drawing raves in public places.

The result, he concluded, is that many Israeli players endowed with excellent technical skills and a potential of becoming impact players in Europe squandered their opportunities because of a lackadaisical approach to the game.

As an agent who has worked with both players and coaches, I have applauded the campaigns of talented and experienced foreign coaches in Israel. My first effort in this direction was in 2006 when I tried to land a position for Tommy Nielsen, the son of Richard and a successful coach in his own right, at Hapoel Haifa.

I argued that an adequate facility in English sufficed, since most Israeli players possessed a rudimentary knowledge of English, but it was to no avail.

In the spring of 2009, when Maccabi Tel Aviv was in the throes of a prolonged slump and was facing the threat of relegation, I contacted Aviv Bushinsky, the erstwhile CEO of Maccabi and proposed Bruce Arena, the highly successful MLS coach and former coach of the US national team. Arena was noted for his fierce competitive spirit and his predilection for tough discipline.

Bushinsky was intrigued by the idea, and we were deep in negotiations when my efforts were scuttled by a local business mogul connected to Maccabi who brainwashed the team owner, Alex Schneider, on the idea that a foreign coach could not cope with the mentality of Israeli players. As for Arena, he went on to win MLS Cups with the LA Galaxy the past two seasons.

Luis Fernandez, the colorful French international player and coach, arrived in Beitar Jerusalem following the takeover of the club by Arkadi Gaydamak, and based on the good marks he drew at Beitar and his high profile, was subsequently hired to coach the national team.

Fernandez, who speaks French and Spanish fluently, loathed using his very limited English in conversation, and usually relied on his assistants Guy Azuri (Beitar) and Tal Banin (national team) to deliver his messages to players when needed. The result of this was that players were often left confused or dumbfounded if something were lost in translation. His dearth of English produced an irremediable schism with some of his players.

Fernandez’s tenure with the national team was brief, and was marked by upsets on both sides of the ledger, as a consequence of which the team was denied a slot in Euro 2012. The Fernandez experience bore a lesson that in light of the cultural divide which separates foreign coaches from Israeli players, facility in English is a crucial element which cannot be ignored when clubs consider the engagement of a foreign coach.

So what does the future portend for foreign coaches in Israel? If Oscar can win the coveted league title this season, he will surely forge a path for other accomplished and tough-minded foreign coaches to take up the call and practice their craft in Israel. Once this occurs, the caravan of foreign coaches traveling to Israel will begin anew.

Don Barnett is an IFA player agent who currently resides in Munich. A native of Jerusalem, he grew up in the US, where he practiced law and mediation.
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