Israeli soccer stars and the blockbuster deals that slipped away

Reflections on missed opportunities for players and clubs from an Israeli agent after 20 years of wheeling and dealing

By DON BARNETT
September 18, 2019 15:25
Israeli soccer stars and the blockbuster deals that slipped away

ANDRZEJ KUBICA (right) and the author, agent Don Barnett, sit together at a cafe in Tel Aviv in 2003. (photo credit: DON BARNETT)

As I close in on my 20th year as a soccer agent and in contemplation of my retirement around the corner, I reflect on those deals involving coaches and players which were foiled by the short-sighted or flawed moves of decision makers with tainted and unscrupulous agendas. If these deals had materialized it would have altered the soccer landscape of several countries with a resounding global impact.

THE COACHES
Avraham Grant


In 2009, shortly after Grant’s Chelsea team narrowly lost in the Champions League final to Manchester United and the subsequent dismissal of Grant by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovic, I focused on the potential of landing Grant as the head coaching position with the New York Red Bulls.


After gauging Grant’s interest, I reached out to Red Bull’s Sporting Director Markus Egger, who appeared to be very intrigued by the idea. I then met with Grant in Zurich followed by a visit to Salzburg to confer with Egger and set up a meeting between the two in Tel Aviv when Salzburg would visit Israel for a Champions League qualification round match with Maccabi Haifa.


After the meeting took place I was contacted by Egger, who stated that he was incredibly impressed by Grant and indicated he was open to negotiations to have Grant in New York. We nearly reached a mutual accord on a three-year deal for $5 million, however before we could generate the contract itself, the principal owner of Red Bull and a renowned fascist, Dietrich Mateschitz, vetoed the deal and fired Markus Egger for a reason which seemed obvious.


As I ponder the botched deal which would have brought Grant to New York, I am mind-boggled by its fallout. With nearly 450,000 Israeli ex-pats in New York, many of whom are ardent soccer fans, Grant would have been warmly embraced within the Israeli community as well as its Jewish counterpart, which numbers close to three million in the greater New York and Northern New Jersey area.




Bruce Arena


In 2008 Maccabi Tel Aviv was in the throes of a dismal season and a coaching change was clearly in the wind. I contacted Arena, a highly successful American soccer coach with a Sephardic Jewish background and vast experience in the college ranks (five titles) and MLS (two titles) as well as two terms with the US Men’s National Team (two World Cups qualified).


I asked Arena if he was interested in coaching Maccabi, and he heartily endorsed the idea. I contacted then Maccabi Tel Aviv Chairman Aviv Buchinsky and he seemed very intrigued by my suggestion, but indicated he would have to run it by the club’s owner, Russian-Canadian tycoon Alex Schneider.


As Schneider pondered the idea, his friend and business associate, Meir Shamir, weighed in with the opinion that foreign coaches can’t cut it in Israel because of the typical mindset of Israel players, who are averse to long training sessions and rigid discipline. He also cited the language problem, since many Israeli players speak little or no English. At Shamir’s urging, Buchinsky informed me that the Arena option was off the table.


The collapse of the Arena talk was a wasteful debacle. To begin with, the myth that foreign coaches can’t succeed in Israel was debunked by the likes of Oscar Garcia and a host of others at Maccabi Tel Aviv who captured league titles under their leadership. Further, Arena’s arrival at Maccabi Tel Aviv would have heralded a new day in the annals of Israeli-American soccer relations which has to date witnessed only a minimal movement of players and not even a single coach. If Arena had landed in Tel Aviv, he would have opened a window of opportunities for other American or Israeli coaches and players to pursue their careers across the pond.






THE PLAYERS


Shlomi Arbeitman


By 2010 Shlomi Arbeitman had established himself as one of the premier strikers in Israel. He had just emerged as Israel’s goal king with an incredible 28 goals as a member of the elite Maccabi Haifa team. However, a previous misstep in 2008 had a profound impact on his career.


By January of that year, given his profile and potential, he was on the radar screen of several European clubs, especially FC Nuremberg of Germany’s Bundesliga. The club’s sporting director, Martin Bader, sent me a very enticing offer for Arbeitman’s services, which included several perks and bonuses that would have nearly doubled his earnings at Maccabi Haifa.


When I reached Arbeitman he requested that I contact his patron, Arik Itzkovic, the owner of Beitar Tobruk, his youth club, with whom he had a personal service agreement.


When I reached Itskovic, he startled me by telling me not to discuss the Nuremberg offer with Haifa owner Yaakov Shahar, and that he would get back to me with a counter-offer. He sent me a counter-offer which was patently preposterous given that Arbeitman’s career was rather inconsistent and that he was prone to injuries. Sure enough, Bader summarily rejected the counter and refused to budge from his initial offer.


I discovered that within a matter of days after the collapse of the deal with Nuremberg, Arbeitman was loaned to Hapoel Tel Aviv and signed for virtually the same offer which was tendered by Nuremberg. The only logical inference to be drawn was that Itzkovic manipulated the situation to thwart Arbeitman’s opportunity in Europe. His failure to notify Shahar of the offer was sheer gamesmanship and was a brazen ploy designed to steer Arbeitman to Tel Aviv.


After his stint at Hapoel was uneventful, Arbeitman returned to Haifa and following a year riddled with injuries came on strong to achieve his landmark season. He was transferred to Gent of the Belgian League where he floundered over a span of five years in relative obscurity. He then returned to Israel where he was in time considered a journeyman player who was stripped of his laurels as a game changer.


One can only wonder what path Arbeitman’s career would have followed had he landed in Nuremberg. His size, strength, toughness, passion and indeed his family name would have been ideal for Bundesliga soccer. He was very stoked when informed of Nuremberg’s offer and resolved to be the first Israeli to be a true impact player in Germany. It’s rather sad that the choice was not his to make.




Andrzej Kubica


Kubica was one of the most exciting foreign players who ever played in Israel. With his commanding presence on the pitch and several spectacular goals, he emerged as a huge favorite to soccer fans everywhere, including those of opposing teams.


He led all goal scorers his very first year at Maccabi Tel Aviv and loomed as a prime difference-maker for years to come, but shot himself in the foot midway through his second year by bolting to Japan for a more lucrative offer. His move angered Maccabi’s owner Loni Hershkowitz, who told Kubica he would not be welcomed back at Maccabi.


In short time, Kubica felt like a fish out of water in Japan and hastened his return to Israel within six months. He was offered a contract both in Beitar Jerusalem and Besiktas JK of Turkey, but at my urging accepted the Beitar offer on the premise that Israeli entrepreneurs were very influential in Poland and Kubica might get a break from one of them with a good business opportunity after his retirement.


In the fall of 2002, Kubica scored two fantastic goals against Maccabi Haifa in a 4-0 romp by Beitar at Teddy Stadium. I ran into Haifa’s GM, Itamar Chizik, two days later and when I told him that I worked with Kubica he seemed quite elated and asked me if he would like to play for Maccabi. We agreed to stay in touch over the next few days.


In the days which followed, Maccabi Haifa coach Itzhak Shum and star midfielder Giovanni Russo voiced their support for Kubica’s joining the club and things looked very bright, but Chizik did not contact me.


I left a couple of messages for him but received no reply. I was dazed when I was contacted by Pini Zahavi, dubbed in Israel as a “super agent” who remarked that he was mindful of my attempts to bring Kubica to Haifa and bluntly told me that it will never happen. When I asked him for the reason, he brusquely replied that he had better players for the club than Kubica. I was aghast when I found out that Zahavi and Haifa owner Yaakov Shahar were virtually joined at the hip, dating back to their childhood days in Ness Ziona. Further, I learned that Zahavi had a carte blanche from the club with regard to foreign players. I was livid in that Zahavi’s actions formed a flagrant conflict of interest and felt that agents cannot exert such authority to cause a detriment to other agents and players.


Scuttled by Zahavi’s veto, I interceded with Tel Aviv owner Hershkowitz to give Kubica another chance and he relented, but Maccabi’s coach Nir Klinger placed Kubica with the reserves and gave the starting nod to a returning Lithuanian striker.


In 2004 Kubica returned to Europe and was dismayed over all the obstacles he faced in Israel. One can only ponder about the success Kubica might have reaped if Zahavi had not blocked his moved to Maccabi Haifa. Playing alongside stars like Rosso, Pralija, Katan, Benado, Casey, Zauzutas, Zandberg and Davidovich, Kubica would have likely shattered many records and propelled the team to numerous league titles and Champions League success.




Michael Zandberg


By the spring of 2006, Zandberg had established himself as the top left winger in Israel. He was noted for his explosive manner of getting around the defenders and steering the attack of his Maccabi Haifa teammates into a sound scoring position.


He played a key role in Maccabi’s string of three successive league titles and earned a spot on the Israel national team. I contacted Nuremberg and it agreed to send one of its chief scouts to see Zandberg in action in an upcoming game against Maccabi Tel Aviv.


During that time, Zandberg’s four-year contract with Haifa was running its course and it was reported in the media that he was drawing great interest from other clubs, primarily Beitar Jerusalem, where Arkadi Gaydamak had poured millions into the club and was beginning to target the very best players in Israel whose contracts were about to expire. Michael had rebuffed attempts by Haifa to extend his contract.


It was leaked to the media that the Nuremberg scout was in Israel to watch Zandberg in the Maccabi Tel Aviv match. For some inexplicable reason, coach Roni Levy displaced Zandberg from his natural position on the wing, where he shined in space, and moved him to the number 10 post underneath the striker, a role he was not accustomed to playing and where he would surely encounter an area heavily congested with defenders.


As a result, Zandberg’s style was cramped in the match and his performance was at best just average. It was clear that Levy was following a directive from management in order to foil the Nuremberg option for Zandberg and make him more amenable to an extension in Haifa. The scout was unimpressed and the potential deal collapsed.


Zandberg was incredulous over this bit of treachery and signed on with Beitar, where he was voted Footballer of the Year. Yet, if the Nuremberg deal had materialized, there is little question that he would have emerged as the first Israeli game-changer in the Bundesliga, where his explosive style of play would have been on display in full force.




David Revivo


David Revivo did not rise to the success and fame of his older brother, Haim, but stood out in his own right and was regarded as one of the finest playmaker in Israel while producing many solid seasons at Ashdod.


In 2006, after Dedi Ben Dayan broke the MLS barrier and put up some amazing numbers in Colorado, I presented David to my good friend Steve Sampson, the former USA National Team coach who was then with the Los Angeles Galaxy. Steve invited David to LA for trial and was clearly impressed with his showing and leadership quality


However, just before I could work out a deal with management, Alexi Lalas, the eccentric guitar toting redhead familiar to many who followed the USA national team in the World Cup, was appointed as general manager of the Galaxy. Lalas had harbored a grudge against Sampson, who relegated him to the bench for all three games of the 1998 World Cup in France, where the US was unable to score a single win, and even suffered an embarrassing loss to Iran in the process.


As predicted, Lalas fired Sampson within a short time and also called off the Revivo deal. I have little doubt but that David would have proven himself with the Galaxy and, coming on the heels of Ben Dayan’s success, served to consolidate the claims of Israel soccer players for MLS recognition.


There were several other Israeli or foreign players who excelled in Israel for many years, but were denied entry to the MLS for a number of reasons, including Omri Afec, due to his local agent’s interference, Roberto Colautti, who was viewed as non-Hispanic by a xenophobic GM because of his move to Israel and William Soares, who played the worst game of his career with an MLS scout in attendance in a match against Sharif Tiraspol.




Elroy Cohen


Back around 2011, Cohen was considered one of the most coveted young players in Israel. He was the key to Kiryat Shmona’s promotion to the Premier League and the following season led the club to the championship of the State Cup.


Cohen was then sent to Hapoel Tel Aviv for a huge transfer fee, but did not produce the expected result with his new team. Married to Shir Elmaliach, one of Israel's top super-models, he seemed more occupied with the task of managing her career than that of proving himself on the pitch.


He peaked with his selection to the national team, but beset by injuries and the diversion to his wife's great success, his game gradually deteriorated to the point he was released by Tel Aviv and signed by Maccabi Petah Tikva, where he failed to rediscover his game.


In 2015, I arranged a trial for Elroy with Seattle Sounders of the MLS in the USA. After a week of training I spoke to the Sounders' coach, the late and great Sigi Schmid, who remarked that while Cohen demonstrated remarkable speed and technical skills, his game lacked the requisite intensity for an MLS career. Still, he felt that he could raise it a notch and that he was a good bet to make the team.


However, two days later Elroy sealed his fate by failing to awake in time to report for a practice match against UCLA. The feedback from Seattle was that he constantly boasted about his wife's celebrity status and his role as the one who shaped her development to that level.


After another failed attempt to join the Cape Town club in South Africa, he announced at the age of 25 that he was retiring from the game in order to channel his energy in the direction of his wife's career. However, his vision of an easy life of basking in Shir's fame and fortune was shattered by her filing for divorce, citing his penchant for gambling and the staggering debts he accumulated.


Don Barnett is an IFA player’s agent who currently resides in Munich. A native of Jerusalem, he grew up in the US, where he practiced law. He also coached soccer and basketball in various youth leagues and wrote a sports column for several Jewish publications.



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