Exactly three weeks after the dejecting finish to their 2015/16 campaign, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s players returned to training on Tuesday, beginning their preparations for the new season.
The yellow-and-blue will already start its continental campaign on June 30 in the first round of the Europa League qualifiers after ending last season empty- handed, meaning preseason had to be brought forward to mid-June.
There are question marks abound for every team ahead of a new campaign, but for Maccabi they are uncharacteristically alarming.
Fitness coach Juan Torrijo was the one who welcomed the players to the Kiryat Shalom training complex on Tuesday, with Maccabi still without a head coach.
Peter Bosz only joined Maccabi in January, but his departure was announced following the State Cup final loss to Maccabi Haifa three weeks ago, with the Dutchman receiving an offer he couldn’t refuse from his native Ajax.
Sports director Jordi Cruyff surely has a new coach waiting in the wings, but the fact it has taken this long to sign a replacement can’t be good news. It is the fifth straight year in which Maccabi will be starting a season with a different coach to the one that ended the previous term.
Since Cruyff arrived in 2012, no coach has remained at Maccabi for more than one season.
After ending the club’s 10-year championship drought in 2012/13, Oscar Garcia left for Brighton & Hove Albion of the English Championship. He currently coaches Austrian champion Red Bull Salzburg.
Paulo Sousa of Portugal replaced him and led the team to a second straight league title before leaving for FC Basel. He now guides Fiorentina in Italy’s Serie A.
Oscar returned for a short stint in the summer of 2013 to 2014, but left before the league campaign even began due to the security situation at the time.
Pako Ayestaran, also of Spain, was hired in his place and led the team to an unprecedented domestic treble in 2014/15. However, his contract wasn’t extended. His next team was Santos Laguna in the Mexican league, but he later joined Valencia in La Liga as an assistant to Gary Neville before being named as manager in March.
Slavisa Jokanovic of Serbia took Pako’s place, but after guiding the team to the Champions League group stage for the first time in 11 years, he bolted in December for Fulham of the English Championship.
Bosz surprisingly left Dutch topflight team Vitesse Arnhem to join Maccabi, but he departed for Ajax after less than five months.
Maccabi, and Cruyff in particular, are proud that the team’s recent coaches have been snatched up by prestigious European clubs. That certainly speaks volumes of Cruyff’s eye for coaching quality and of his ability to recruit names who would otherwise probably not even consider coming to Israel.
However, the coaching carousel inevitably leads to unrest in the squad, something the players have admitted to more than once, including at the end of last season when rumors connecting Bosz with Ajax intensified.
Cruyff has, of course, proven more than once than he can be trusted to find the right man for the job and an announcement could well be made before the team leaves for its training camp in Austria on Thursday.
But while Cruyff holds all the cards when it comes to the next head coach, he is almost helpless in the case of Eran Zahavi.
It is difficult to overstate Zahavi’s importance to Maccabi since joining in January of 2013.
He has led the Premier League in scoring in each of the past three seasons, breaking the 61-year-old record for goals in a season with 35 last term.
The 28-year-old midfielder has often said that he would only leave Maccabi for a big club in Europe, but an offer to play in China that could earn him an estimated $12.5 million over the next two-and-a-half years, half of it upfront, could well change that.
Zahavi agreed to waive the release clause in his contract last year when the yellow-and-blue made him the highest earning player in Israeli soccer history with a contract extension that earns him over one million euros a year.
Guangzhou R&F, not to be mistaken with current Chinese champion Guangzhou Evergrande, is willing to pay Maccabi more than $5 million for his services, money the yellow-and-blue will gladly turn down.
However, should Zahavi, who already rejected a lucrative deal in China last season, choose to pursue the offer and pressure Maccabi to allow him to leave, owner Mitch Goldhar could decide to let him go rather than hold on to a disgruntled player.
Zahavi – as well as any other Maccabi players involved in national team action at the end of the season (Tal Ben-Haim, Dor Peretz, Eitan Tibi, Predrag Rajkovic and Haris Medunjanin) – is only scheduled to return to the fold on Thursday.
He may well only be coming to Kiryat Shalom to say goodbye.
In Zahavi’s absence, the most photographed player on Tuesday was Yossi Benayoun, who joined on a one-year deal, and according to Cruyff is only the first of several changes to be made to the squad this summer.
“Benayoun is a player with a wealth of experience and great qualities who I am sure will be a great addition to Maccabi Tel Aviv’s squad,” Cruyff told Maccabi’s website. “Both myself, CEO Martin Bain and Mitch Goldhar are working hard to execute our plans we agreed upon some weeks ago.”
The 36-year-old Benayoun spent the past two seasons at Maccabi Haifa, leaving the club in acrimonious fashion. He helped the Greens to their first title in five years and first State Cup in 18 years in his final match for the team, but revealed after the cup final that Haifa had asked him to leave last September following the side’s poor start to the season and the subsequent unrest in the dressing room.
Unhappy with the way he was treated by the Greens, Benayoun already told the club in February that he will be leaving this summer, with Maccabi Tel Aviv always the likely destination.
Benayoun, who played for Racing Santander of the Spanish league as well as English Premier League clubs West Ham United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal during his impressive career, is by no means a replacement for Zahavi.
At this stage of his career, Benayoun can be counted upon to be no more than a top class substitute. Ironically, it was Zahavi who pressured his friend Benayoun to come and join forces with him. It remains to be seen if they will ever play together at Maccabi.
Zahavi may have already decided he will be staying in Israel and is stalling his announcement as a means of leverage to receive another raise. So far he has kept the cards close to his chest, but a decision will be made one way or another in the coming days.
While Cruyff has proven time and again that he can bring in the right coach, filling a void that might be left by Zahavi’s departure is a completely different story. Zahavi is simply irreplaceable.
No one player is bigger than the club, but no one in Israeli soccer has come closer to such a status than Eran Zahavi.