Israeli soccer icon Reuven Atar’s fate will be decided from inside Hermon Prison.
Yes, you read that right.
It will be with a call from the Galilee penitentiary that the still-coach of last-place Ashdod SC will find out that he has lost his job.
Of course, in theory he may not be sacked. But considering his record in recent years and the fact that we are talking about the Israeli Premier League – in which five of 12 teams have already replaced coaches with the season just one month old – it seems to be a matter of when, rather than if, Atar will be fired.
And when that happens, whether it be today, or after Sunday’s match against Maccabi Haifa, or maybe even later in the season, he will find out when he receives an incoming call from a prison number that he must surely already recognize.
Hermon Prison is where unofficial club boss Jacky Ben-Zaken is serving a 26-month sentence after being convicted of manipulating shares. He is nine months into his term.
Despite not holding any official role at the club – and the fact he isn’t quite accessible these days – Ben-Zaken, who has officially relinquished his ownership of the club, is still the one making all of the team’s important decisions.
It is an absurdity that is an embarrassment to Israeli soccer, but one that represents part of its reality.
It is safe to say Ben-Zakan encounters far more difficult dilemmas behind the bars than the one he faces with Atar.
In fact, it is the owner’s decision to hire him in the first place which is truly baffling.
After a legendary playing career, Atar actually got life as a coach off to an impressive start. He was named as Maccabi Netanya’s head coach ahead of the 2004/05 campaign and spent much of the following eight years at the club. Atar led Netanya to second- place finishes in 2006/07 and 2007/08, only to then be replaced by German Lothar Matthaus.
He spent 2008/09 at Beitar Jerusalem and led the club to a State Cup triumph. His contract was not renewed and he found himself back in Netanya for a third time. He remained at the helm until the end of the 2011/12 season in which he guided the team to a fourth-place finish and Europa League qualification.
Atar would leave that summer after being named as the coach of his boyhood club, Maccabi Haifa. He arrived with sky-high expectations, being one of the club’s all-time greatest players, and arguably its most adored. But with Haifa picking up just seven points from nine matches – leaving it in 13th position out of 14 teams – Atar was sacked.
His career hasn’t recovered since.
Netanya was, of course, the place in which he tried to get back on track in 2013, but he couldn’t save the team from relegation to the National League after coming in for the final six matches of the 2012/13 campaign.
After sitting out an entire year, he was appointed as the coach of Hapoel Haifa ahead of 2014/15, but Atar didn’t complete the season, being sacked in February 2015 after a poor run of results.
It is a run that continues until this day and has become truly disastrous.
Atar’s last win as a Premier League coach (he spent the second half of last season with Hapoel Afula in the National League) was with Hapoel Haifa back in January 2015.
His winless streak reached 18 matches with this past Saturday’s 3-0 defeat to Netanya, a run which also includes another two-month stint in Netanya at the start of the 2015/16 campaign.
After failing to register a victory in his final four games at Hapoel Haifa, he didn’t win any of his nine matches in charge of Netanya between November 2015 and January 2016.
His time at Afula was far from a great success, with the team winning just one of its final 11 matches last season.
Nevertheless, Ben-Zaken decided he was the right man for Ashdod.
Ben-Zaken seems set to soon backtrack on that judgment, with Ashdod picking up a single point from its first five games this season and occupying last place in the standings.
“We give up too easily, but I know we are better than this and I believe we can correct this,” said Atar after Saturday’s loss.
Ashdod has been a fixture in the top flight since the turn of the century. It has played in the Premier League every season, apart from 2015/16, since it was created with the merger between Ironi Ashdod and Hapoel Ashdod in 1999.
After a disappointing start to his ownership, Ben-Zaken decided to funnel funds into the club’s infrastructure instead of splashing out on costly recruits, building new training grounds as well as a youth academy.
It has paid dividends, with the likes of Niv Zrihen, Michael Ohana, Or Inbrum and Hatem Abd Elhamed all leaving the club in lucrative deals over the past couple of seasons, with the first three all coming through Ashdod’s youth department.
The money the club received for those transfers has done it little good on and off the field. Ashdod continues to be one of the league’s weakest teams season after season and has also got one of the worst attendance records in the top flight.
But the club’s sad reality will only buy Atar so much time.
Ben-Zaken watched Saturday’s match from his home after being given a holiday from prison for Rosh Hashana. He returned to his cell on Sunday, and didn’t leave behind any instructions regarding Atar’s future.
Perhaps he doesn’t want to fire someone during the 10 days of repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur or maybe he doesn’t feel that any of the available coaches could do a better job. Who knows, Ben-Zaken might even believe that Atar is still the man to lead Ashdod.
That seems to be extremely unlikely though, assuming he isn’t receiving to his cell match highlights edited by Atar.
At this stage, the coach’s dismissal looks to be all but inevitable.
It isn’t that Atar has become a terrible coach over recent years, but rather the poor decisions he has made in choosing who to work for, putting himself in situations in which he had little chance of succeeding. He may not be receiving that many offers these days, but Atar should have figured Ashdod was not the place for him.
After all, taking a job in which one answers to someone sitting in a prison cell rarely ends well.
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