The buzz was palpable.
The first round of Toto Cup matches are usually no more than meaningless preseason preparation for Israeli soccer’s Premier League clubs.
However, there was a distinctively different feel to Maccabi Haifa’s encounter with Hapoel Acre last week.
The fact that the game was twice postponed due to Operation Protective Edge may have played some part in the undeniable excitement in the stands. Nevertheless, that was not the main reason 7,000 Haifa fans filled the stadium in Netanya.
They had come to see one man.
They had come to see Yossi Benayoun.
Some of them were too young to even remember what it felt like to witness Benayoun play for the Greens.
The 34-year-old midfielder left Haifa 12 years ago to begin a European adventure unlike any other experienced by an Israeli player.
However, after playing for the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, Benayoun decided it was time to come home.
Benayoun had once vowed he would never play again for an Israeli team.
Despite always having the option of returning to Israel, he went more than five months without a club last year before ultimately signing with then-English Championship side Queens Park Rangers. He played a peripheral role in the club’s promotion to the English Premier League, but remained undecided regarding his future for much of the past summer.
In fact, it was only after a bizarre sequence of events that Benayoun ultimately agreed to a two-year deal with Haifa two months ago, less than 24 hours after both the team and the player announced that he wouldn’t be returning to the Greens.
Benayoun and the club released separate statements explaining that negotiations had broken down and that the mercurial midfielder will not join Haifa.
Benayoun wished the team luck and wrote that he sees himself free to join another Israeli club after first negotiating with Haifa the way he had always promised.
However, a phone conversation between Haifa owner Jacob Shachar and Benayoun to clear the air changed everything.
Shachar had called Benayoun to explain that there was no intention of offending him, but their conversation broke the ice between the parties and within hours a two-year deal was announced.
Benayoun will reportedly earn around $400,000 per season and become the club’s sporting director after he retires from the pitch.
His salary has already been covered by Haifa’s record season ticket sales, with over 14,000 fans already booking their place at the new state-of-the-art Sammy Ofer Stadium.
While the club’s expenses at hosting matches in the 30,000-seat stadium will rise compared to the dilapidated Kiryat Eliezer, Haifa has already generated an estimated NIS 20 million from season tickets alone.
Much of the credit for that should go to Benayoun. His return sparked the imagination of the supporters, who have recently experienced frustrating times after a decade of unrivaled success.
The Greens dominated the local Premier League in the the first decade of the 21st century, winning seven championships over 11 years, including three in a row at one stage (2004-06).
However, Haifa has spent the past two years in the shadow of Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Haifa’s main goal in the upcoming season will be to deny the yellow-andblue from joining it as the only team in the past 50 years to claim three consecutive titles.
The early signs are encouraging, with everything seemingly in place for the club to once more challenge for the championship after finishing in a bitterly disappointing fifth place last season, a massive 31 points behind Maccabi Tel Aviv.
It was the second time in three years that the Greens could only manage fifth place, with the team finishing in second position in 2012/13 but nevertheless never coming close to competing for the title.
The last time Haifa went three consecutive years without lifting the championship shield was in the 1990s.
In an effort to end the barren spell, club owner Shachar increased the budget and followed in the footsteps of Maccabi Tel Aviv by bringing in a foreign coaching staff led by Serbian Aleksandar Stanojevic.
Shachar’s willingness to emulate what has worked for his rivals proved he is not as obstinate as he is often portrayed.
Shachar refused to match Arkadi Gaydamak’s spending spree between 2005 and 2008, and despite seeing Beitar Jerusalem claim two straight championships (2007-08), his instincts proved to be correct with the oligarch quickly losing interest and leaving the club in shambles.
However, the case of Maccabi Tel Aviv owner Mitch Goldhar is completely different, with the Jewish-Canadian billionaire not only having far deeper pockets than Gaydamak, but also a far more methodical and longterm approach.
Shachar has seemingly woken up to the new reality and his willingness to increase his funding resulted in the return of arguably Israel’s greatest ever player.
Unlike so many others, Benayoun not only lived up to the exceptionally high expectations during his career, but he actually exceeded them.
He was a fan favorite while playing for Haifa between 1998 and 2002, leading the club to two straight championships before leaving for Racing Santander of the Spanish league.
Haifa came back from a goal down to beat Acre 2-1 last Wednesday, with Benayoun playing the full 90 minutes.
He seemed rusty at times, but displayed sparks of the talent that resulted in him becoming the Israel national team’s most capped player this past May.
Benayoun didn’t play in Haifa’s subsequent Toto Cup matches against Ironi Kiryat Shmona and Hapoel Haifa.
However, he is expected to start in Haifa’s Premier League opener against Bnei Sakhnin next Monday in what will be the team’s first match at Sammy Ofer.
Over 20,000 fans are set to be at the stadium, hoping that the rebuilt Greens get the 2014/15 season off to a winning start.
More than anything else, however, they will be coming again to see one man. A man who has been shouldering the hopes of Israeli soccer fans for almost two decades and doesn’t appear ready to let them down.
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