Hapoel Tel Aviv’s players look to overcome their dysfunctional ownership and get their Europa League qualifying campaign off on the right foot when they face Astana in Kazakhstan on Thursday, while Hapoel Beersheba hopes to bring some cheer to a battered city when it visits RNK Split.
Both Tel Aviv and Beersheba were scheduled to host the first legs of the second qualifying round, but due to the ongoing rocket fire from Gaza they exchanged venues for the home and away legs.
However, UEFA notified the Israel Football Association on Wednesday that Tel Aviv, Beersheba, and also Israel’s representative in the Champions League Maccabi Tel Aviv, will have to host their second legs abroad due to the security situation.
Hapoel Tel Aviv will have to manage on Thursday without star striker Omer Damari, who remained in Israel after falling ill.
Damari has been at the center of a power struggle at Hapoel over recent weeks.
The club announced last week that the 25-year-old, who scored 26 goals in the Premier League last season, had signed a new improved contract.
Damari said in a press statement that “I followed my heart” and that “Hapoel is my home and I’ll leave only if I receive an offer from Europe which will help both the club and myself.”
The new contract also included a clause which forbids him from leaving Hapoel for another Israeli club. However, there was another twist in the plot when Hapoel notified Damari on Monday that his contract had been nullified as manager Eyal Berkovic had not known that he can’t change the terms of the striker’s deal without the consent of Maccabi Petah Tikva boss Amos Luzon, whose club still retains a 50 percent stake of Damari.
After hearing of the new contract, Luzon had demanded that Hapoel transfer Petah Tikva NIS four million or allow him to leave for another club.
According to Luzon, Maccabi Tel Aviv offered 1.5 million euros for the striker’s services, while Hapoel Beersheba agreed to pay NIS eight million. Luzon, whose club held on to a 50 percent stake when Damari left Petah Tikva for Hapoel three years ago, called for the new contract to be canceled.
Nevertheless, Tel Aviv insisted last week that “players are not properties and they have their wishes, thoughts and aspirations, even if they don’t coincide with Amos Luzon’s financial interests.”
However, that all changed on Monday when the head of the club’s ownership group, Haim Ramon, entered the fray and Hapoel backtracked on its announcement from the previous week.
That of course resulted in a rift between the ownership and Berkovic, who felt his authority was being questioned.
Hapoel’s ownership is desperate to sell Damari to a European club in order to help cover its deficit. It has received an offer estimated at 1.6 million euro from Austria Wien. Damari is reluctant to join the Austrian club, which isn’t willing to meet his wage demands and won’t be playing in Europe in 2014/15. However, a move to Austria looks to be the preferred solution for both the club and Luzon as it would help financially and also ensure the parties don’t meet in court.
While Hapoel Tel Aviv will be playing in Europe for the ninth consecutive year, Beersheba will take part in continental competition for the first time since 1997 on Thursday.
Beersheba’s last appearance in Europe was in the now-extinct Cup Winners Cup in the 1997/98 season, with its most memorable experience coming in 1995 when it lost 12-0 on aggregate to Barcelona in the UEFA Cup.
Beersheba is hoping to build on last season’s surprise success when it finished as runner-up to Maccabi Tel Aviv and reached the State Cup semifinals.
The club has maintained the core of the side from last season and has made two significant signings so far, adding Israel striker Shlomi Arbeitman, who is back in Israel after four years in Belgium, and national team midfielder Maor Melikson, who returned to Beersheba after three years in Poland and France.
“This isn’t going to be easy, but we will of course do whatever we can to advance,” said Beersheba coach Elisha Levy. “The Israeli and Croatian leagues are of a similar level and this will be a tight tie.”