A group of outcasts and outsiders are setting the pace in the Israeli Premier League.
Hapoel Haifa’s owner, head coach and players are well past proving their doubters wrong, and not because they haven’t had their critics.
It has more to do with them reaching such lows that they went from being a target for analysts to a butt for comedians searching for an easy laugh.
After all, it doesn’t take much to make a joke of the way owner Yoav Katz mixes English and Hebrew in interviews, not to mention the stingy reputation he has earned himself over the years.
But at the moment, it is Katz, and everyone else connected with Hapoel Haifa, who are the ones laughing.
There is still a long way to go, but with six wins and two draws from the first eight matches, Haifa is looking down on the rest of the league and growing in belief with every passing week.
The team’s results don’t tell the entire story. Haifa has outplayed most of its opponents as well as beating them, and impressed even in its two draws, 3-3 at Beitar Jerusalem and 1-1 against Hapoel Beersheba.
Coach Nir Klinger has got his squad playing better than the sum of its parts, getting a group of disgruntled players, many of whom had been written off long ago, to maximize their potential and gel as a unit.
It wasn’t hard for the 51-year-old Klinger to sympathize with his players.
After a superb playing career that ended in 1998, Klinger got his coaching career off to a promising start. He led Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Premier League title in his first season coaching in the top flight in 2002/03 and then guided the yellow-and-blue to the group stage of the Champions League for the first time in club history in 2004/05. A disappointing start to the subsequent campaign resulted in Klinger’s resignation and his career has essentially been on a downward spiral since. He wouldn’t coach in Israel for almost seven years, guiding five different clubs in Cyprus. After a season at Hapoel Beersheba and Hapoel Haifa, Klinger joined Ashdod SC in 2013, leaving the club after two years following its relegation to the National League.
Klinger would go on to work as a sports director at Maccabi Sha’araim in the second division, but he would leave the club for a similar position at Hapoel Haifa in December of last year.
Klinger stepped down from the front office to coach the team in the final two months of last season, with Haifa going unbeaten in its final six games to avoid relegation.
He remained the head coach for 2017/18, with the team being expected to finish somewhere in the middle of standings.
That may still end up being the case, but Haifa’s start to the campaign is reminding fans of the club’s glory days.
Klinger’s story has many similarities to that of Eden Ben-Basat, probably the team’s biggest star. When Ben-Basat returned to Israel a little over three years ago he was widely regarded as one of the best players in the country.
After three successful seasons in France and becoming an integral part of the Israel national team, Ben-Basat was lured back home by a lucrative offer from Maccabi Tel Aviv, which paid Toulouse in the region of 750,000 euros for his services.
He was at the prime of his career and seemed set to finally make his mark on the local scene in a big way.
But instead, Ben-Basat would completely lose his way at Maccabi.
There were several highlights in his first season in yellow-and-blue, with Ben-Basat scoring six goals in 24 appearances in 2014/15 in which Maccabi won an unprecedented local treble.
Matters would go dramatically downhill after that though, with Ben-Basat netting two goals in 22 games in 2015/16 and a single goal in the first half of last season, falling completely out of favor with the team’s coaching staff.
In an attempt to resurrect his career, Ben-Basat joined Hapoel Haifa in January of this year. He found the back of the net twice in 15 games to end last season, bringing his tally over the past two seasons to a measly five league goals.
He needed just four games to match that total this season, with Ben-Basat finally looking like the player of old, despite recently celebrating his 31st birthday.
Haifa remained the league’s only unbeaten team this past weekend with a 1-0 victory at Bnei Sakhnin courtesy of Ben-Basat’s winner in the 83rd minute. Ben-Basat returned from injury when he came on as a substitute in the 70th minute, and while he returned to the bench just 16 minutes later due to his lack of match fitness, it was enough time for him to score his sixth league goal of the campaign, taking him up to second place among the league’s top scorers.
Hapoel is off to its best start since winning its one and only championship in 1998/99 when the club had the biggest budget in the league, being bankrolled by Robi Shapira. Shapira took his own life in December 2001, reportedly due to financial difficulties, and Hapoel was without an owner until Katz came along in 2004.
Katz, who was born and raised in Haifa but has lived in the US since moving there in his 20s, has often been criticized for his frugal running of the club. But unlike so many other owners in Israeli soccer who have come and quickly gone, Katz’s consistent approach has made him one of the league’s longest serving bosses.
Instead of being a laughing stock, he is beginning to receive the respect he deserves for keeping his head held high in the bog of Israeli soccer.
Hapoel Haifa still needs to prove that it can contend for a title for an entire season, but it is at the very least providing a breath of fresh air after years of dominance by Hapoel Beersheba and Maccabi Tel Aviv, something no one could see coming just two months firstname.lastname@example.org
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