On the face of it, there is nothing extraordinary about ending the first round
of Premier League matches in fifth place, nine points off the top of the
However, considering Betar Jerusalem’s situation just three months
ago, the fact the club from the capital is dreaming about winning a championship
rather than dreading demotion is nothing short of sensational.
Garcia’s Maccabi Tel Aviv may be leading the standings and Yossi Mizrahi has yet
again exceeded all expectations at Ashdod SC, but there is an almost unanimous
agreement among Israeli soccer fans and experts that Betar’s Eli Cohen has been
the league’s outstanding coach in the first third of the season.
makes Cohen’s return to the limelight all the more exceptional is the fact that
his coaching career seemed to be over just last year.
The 62-year-old was
one of Israel’s top coaches in the 1990’s, winning a championship at Betar
(1996/97), a State Cup at Hapoel Tel Aviv (1999) before moving on to Maccabi
However, he failed to complete a full season at Kiryat Eliezer
Stadium, being sacked seven matches before the end of the term following a
His time at the club is remembered more than
anything else for then-Greens midfielder Yossi Benayoun refusing to leave the
field of play when Cohen tried to substitute him during a cup tie against Hapoel
Cohen spent the following season at Hapoel Petah Tikva, but in the
11 years since he only once completed a full campaign at a club.
returned to Betar to save it from relegation in 2001/02, but left midway through
the following year.
Only two teams called on Cohen at a start of a season
during the past decade, with the Sheriff, a nickname he earned during his
playing career at Maccabi Ramat Amidar, leaving six different sides midseason,
with three of those clubs eventually being relegated from the top
After winning just three of 17 matches at Hapoel Beersheba and
being fired, Cohen spent almost two years away from the game before linking up
with Maccabi Tel Aviv.
By signing for the yellow-and-blue Cohen joined a
rarefied list of coaches to have guided each of Israel’s big four clubs. But he
was sent packing just two matches into his second season at Maccabi after
leading the side to third place in his debut campaign.
Cohen will want to
remember little of his next two jobs, guiding Bnei Yehuda and Ironi Kiryat
Shmona to a combined two wins in 24 matches between 2007 and
Cohen’s successor at Kiryat Shmona, Ran Ben-Shimon, couldn’t save
it from relegation and for almost three years it seemed like local soccer had
seen the last of the Sheriff.
Unlike most of his colleagues, Cohen hasn’t
depended on the income from coaching for his livelihood for many years, owning
several successful businesses as well as being a real-estate
However, when Betar came calling in February, Cohen had few
It wasn’t that the effectively bankrupt Jerusalem had made a
lucrative offer, but rather that Cohen always maintained a particularly warm
spot for Betar.
When he joined Jerusalem it was just two points above the
relegation zone, scoring a meager 16 goals in 25 matches.
went on to guide the yellow-and-black to eight consecutive victories at one
stage to comfortably secure survival.
Despite Betar’s uncertain future
and the fact he didn’t officially sign a contract extension until late in the
off-season, Cohen promised to remain at the club for as long as he was
Nevertheless, the financial uncertainty in the summer seriously
hampered Betar’s preparations for the season, and it was hardly surprising that
the team only picked up two points from its first five matches.
few could predict what was to unfold next.
Despite having a mostly young
and inexperienced squad to work with, Cohen built a cohesive unit from the
products of the Betar youth system and other clubs’ outcasts.
lost just one of its past nine encounters, drawing 1-1 with Maccabi Tel Aviv on
Monday to climb up to fifth place.
“We faced an opponent which is in
first place for a reason and I’m very pleased with the result despite our
mediocre display,” Cohen said after Monday’s showdown at National Stadium in
“We are a work in progress with a young squad of players who
are training very hard.”
The compliments are raining in again on Cohen,
but having experienced a lost decade he will not be getting carried
Cohen’s evolving project at Betar has injected much needed life and
color into a floundering league, promising news not just for Jerusalem fans but
for Israeli soccer in general.