With his 32nd birthday being celebrated only six days ago, Hapoel Ashkelon’s Messay Dego is the youngest coach in Israeli soccer’s Premier League.
He also holds another distinction, one that in a perfect world would go unnoticed. In our flawed reality though, it would be naïve to ignore the fact that Dego became the first Ethiopian-Israeli coach to guide a team in the top flight this past Sunday.
Not only is that an overdue and noteworthy accomplishment, but also one that has the potential of making a real impact on people’s lives.
Dego is a pioneer and, despite only being at the beginning of his coaching journey, is already an inspiration to so many who share his heritage and skin color, and have had to overcome similar stereotypes.
It wasn’t that long ago that Dego was pulling 10-hour shifts as a cleaning inspector for the Bat Yam Municipality to allow himself to work as a coach at Hapoel Tel Aviv’s youth department later in the day.
Dego, who was born in Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa and moved to Israel with his family in 1990, would get up at the crack of dawn to ensure the city’s schools were clean ahead of the arrival of the pupils. He worked at the job for two years, with his playing career coming to an end at the age of 27 due to injuries.
But while his route to becoming a head coach in the top flight was far from ideal, he never wavered.
During his long hours in the deserted streets of Bat Yam, rather than counting the minutes until the end of his shift, Dego would watch training sessions by current Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola on his phone and take notes, determined to learn from the best.
Dego was hoping to follow in the footsteps of his big brother, Baruch, who starred for Maccabi Tel Aviv at the turn of the century and to this day is widely regarded as the best Ethiopian-Israeli player ever.
The senior Dego paved the way for many others, but his younger brother’s stint as a player never took off. Messay spent much of it in the second and third divisions and an ankle injury ultimately forced his early retirement in 2013.
He was desperate to remain involved in the sport and was handed a role at the Hapoel youth department after his good friend Gili Vermouth, the former Hapoel star who currently plays for Hapoel Haifa, pulled some strings.
Dego finally turned his full focus to coaching in November 2016, with then Hapoel Kfar Saba coach Sharon Mimer offering him a job as his assistant.
Mimer was sacked two months later, but Dego continued at the dysfunctional club, which was relegated to the National League at the end of the season. With then owner Stav Shacham only interested in cutting costs before eventually offloading the club, he offered Dego the head coach’s position in the summer of 2017.
That came only after Messay had already visited the Employment Service Bureau and applied for unemployment benefits, with the uncertainty surrounding Kfar Saba leaving the coach out of work.
With a measly budget of NIS 1.5 million, he began to assemble a squad, and no one, even Dego himself, could foresee what would happen next. Kfar Saba picked up 25 of a possible 27 points from its first nine National League matches, winning eight games and drawing one.
That included four matches in which Dego’s free-flowing side netted four goals, storming to the summit of the second division standings in style. Kfar Saba fell back down to earth with three consecutive defeats, but new club owner Itzhak Shum’s decision to sack Dego last month was still received with complete dismay, and a fair amount of outrage, in the local soccer community.
After defeating Beitar Kfar Saba of the third division 3-1 to advance to the State Cup quarterfinals, and with the team still in second place in the table, which will lead to promotion at the end of the season, Shum made a controversial decision he may well long regret.
He met with Dego shortly after the match and told him he was fired.
Dego claimed that the main reason behind his sacking was his reluctance to play Shum’s grandson, Tom Shelach, something Shum vehemently denied.
“No player is above the team and no coach is above the owner,” was how Shum explained his decision. “He was sacked because he wasn’t loyal enough, not to me as an owner and not to the club.”
Dego did his best to avoid the blame game, with Kfar Saba’s results since his departure doing all the talking on his behalf. Kfar Saba has played four league matches since he was fired and has picked up just two points, falling to fourth place.
Dego wasn’t out of work for long, with Ashkelon calling last week following the resignation of coach Yuval Naim. Dego’s debut didn’t go as he had hoped, with Ashkelon losing 1-0 at Ironi Kiryat Shmona on Sunday, suffering a sixth straight defeat. Ashkelon has won only one of its past 18 matches and is four points back of Ashdod SC and safety.
“We aren’t going to give up,” said Dego, with Ashkelon having three more regular season games before playing seven more matches in the relegation playoffs to determine the battle against demotion.
“Life is difficult in the Premier League, but it was also tough with Kfar Saba in the National League. If I didn’t believe in this team I wouldn’t have come.”
With rock-bottom Acre already looking doomed, sitting eight points from safety, the battle against the second relegation spot seems set to be fought out between three or four teams, with Ashkelon currently looking like the clear favorite to join Acre in the National League next season.
After breaking through so many glass ceilings to reach this stage, Dego is certainly not deterred by the challenge.
Saving Ashkelon from demotion may prove to be beyond him. But in his short time as a head coach, Dego has already staked his claim as one of the most promising sideline leaders in Israeli soccer, regardless of color or background.