This wasn’t the way it was scripted.
Reuven Atar’s return to Maccabi
Haifa was supposed to be the perfect start to a fairytale story.
it has been nothing but a nightmare.
It is hard to imagine how the
beginning to Atar’s tenure could have been any more disastrous.
Haifa could have lost all five of its matches, but the fact that the Greens have
registered their worse ever start to a Premier League campaign by picking up
only two points from a possible 15 was just as inconceivable only a few weeks
Haifa has been the dominant force in Israeli soccer since the turn
of the century, winning seven championships over the past 12 seasons, including
two in the last four years under the guidance of Elisha Levy.
that didn’t stop the club’s fans from incessantly fantasizing about the day that
Atar would return to guide his boyhood club.
The supporters were not shy
about it either, voicing their wishes in an almost ungrateful manner over recent
seasons despite all the team’s success.
Atar, who began his playing
career in Haifa’s midfield in 1986, actually moved across town in 1994 to then
nouveau-riche archrival Hapoel Haifa.
But the Green faithful couldn’t
begrudge their favorite son for long.
His virtuoso performances and
spell-binding talent meant all was quickly forgotten and he returned for two
more stints in Green before retiring as a Maccabi Netanya player in 2003 due to
Atar immediately went into coaching, initially as an assistant at
Netanya, at which he was also given his first chance as a head coach in
The 43-year-old spent much of the past eight years at Netanya,
while also leading Betar Jerusalem to the State Cup in 2009.
to Netanya for a third tenure three years ago, and despite having only a meager
budget at his disposal, guided the team to a fourth-place finish and Europa
League qualification last season.
Haifa owner Jacob Shahar always
insisted that Atar’s time will come and he finally granted the fans their wish
ahead of this season, with his son Or playing a crucial role in the decision,
using his growing influence at the club to convince his father.
previous seasons, Shahar gave his coach complete freedom in building the squad,
bringing in every player Atar requested within the club’s
Atar signed eight new senior players, with four of them
coming in after the side’s unacceptable start to the season.
Two of the
late arrivals are former Israel internationals Dekel Keinan and Avihai Yadin,
but they have so far done little to steady the ship, with Haifa not even finding
the back of the net in its past two matches.
While the Greens showed some
real promise in their first two matches of the season against Maccabi Tel Aviv
and Ironi Kiryat Shmona and could consider themselves slightly unlucky to lose
in both, Haifa’s level of performance has nose-dived in recent weeks under
The burden of expectations also seems to be getting to
Atar, who looked completely distraught in his post-match TV interview following
Saturday’s 0-0 draw at Hapoel Acre, an interview he only agreed to give after
being told that the club would be fined if he didn’t.
Looking at Atar’s
face on Saturday it seemed that the crisis in Haifa was about to reach boiling
However, fortunately for the coach and the club, Shahar quickly
squashed any notion that Atar might be sacked, laughing off the suggestion and
promising that he will keep his job at least until the end of the
Shahar’s words and track record should reassure Atar, with the
boss not firing a coach midseason since Eli Cohen was sent packing in
There is of course always the danger that the situation could
spiral out of control to such an extent that Atar will feel that the only way
for Haifa to salvage something from this season would be if he
However, Haifa has an ideal opportunity to kick start its campaign
when it hosts newly-promoted Hapoel Ramat Gan on Saturday ahead of an
international break, which will be followed by a trip to Hapoel Tel
Shahar made a surprise visit to the team’s training session on
Tuesday to provide some words of encouragement, promising the squad that he
still believes in them and in the coaching staff.
And it is not just
Shahar who is giving his full backing to the coach.
Atar’s unique status
at the club can also be seen in the fact that the fans are remaining supportive
rather than deriding the players and demanding accountability from the coach
after having their expectations crushed.
Atar became such a fan-favorite
due to his ability to create something out of nothing on the pitch, coming up
with a piece of magic when all else seemed lost.
Haifa could sure use him
on the field at the moment, but it is Atar’s coaching skills that will come
under the sternest of tests in the coming weeks as he attempts to transform a
shambolic situation into an unlikely success story.