Itzhak Shum’s reputation as one of the greatest Israeli players of all-time will never be in doubt.
He has also enjoyed a remarkable career as a coach, being one of a select group of his countrymen to register success both at home and abroad.
But for all his illustrious past, the 68-yearold Shum enters this season with arguably the most important role he has ever held, the role of owner – and savior – of his boyhood club, Hapoel Kfar Saba.
Shum took the club over from Stav Shacham earlier this summer when it was on the brink of extinction. There was never any doubt Shacham’s tumultuous reign was coming to an end after Kfar Saba was relegated from the Premier League last season.
But finding someone to take his place proved to be anything but simple.
Even though he was willing to hand over the club for virtually nothing, only asking that the new owner cover the club’s commitments, Kfar Saba still found itself on the verge of going into administration, a testament to how unattractive local soccer has become in the eyes of so many in the business sector.
Shum is not a rich man, but he wasn’t going to allow the only club he played for during his 18-year career on the field, and which he coached for three years, to disappear.
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“I didn’t really want to take over Hapoel Kfar Saba. I waited for someone richer than me to take the club because I’m not rich. But I saw that the club was going to go into administration if I don’t take it,” explained Shum.
“We looked, and tried and hoped people would buy the club, but no one wanted it. What was I supposed to do, let the club die?” Shum was born in Kishinev, Moldova, then part of the USSR, in 1948.
His family moved to Israel when he was 10 and he almost immediately began playing soccer at Hapoel Kfar Saba. He made his debut for the senior team in the 1964/65 season and never left. Shum was an integral part of the Israel national team that qualified for the 1970 World Cup. He was also a member of the Israel sides that played in the 1968 and 1976 Olympic Games, making him the only player to participate in all of the national team’s appearances in major tournaments to date.
Shum made a total of 78 appearances for the blue-and-white, ranking him ninth on the all-time list.
He guided Kfar Saba to promotion to the old First Division in his first season as coach in 1983/84, but his career on the sidelines didn’t take off until much later.
He spent nine years as an assistant coach with the national team, first for seven years under good friend Shlomo Scharf and then for two years with Dane Richard Moller Nielsen.
Shum, of course, made his return to club soccer with Kfar Saba in 2001, leading the team to Premier League promotion once more. He left following just one season after receiving an offer from Maccabi Haifa.
He spent only one year with the Greens, but that was all he needed to make history, with Haifa becoming the first Israeli team to qualify for the Champions League group stage.
His success in continental competition was rewarded with an offer from Greek powerhouse Panathinaikos. After eight years without a title, Panathinaikos won a league and cup double under Shum, which didn’t help him avoid the sack early in the subsequent campaign.
Shum also spent short stints with Bulgarian side Litex Lovech and Russia’s Alania Vladikavkaz.
He returned to Israel ahead of the 2007/08 season and led Beitar Jerusalem to a first Premier League and State Cup double in club history. He once more lost his job before too long, being fired at the start of the following campaign on the back of an early European exit.
He returned to Beitar in the 2009/10 season, but didn’t even last a full season and he hasn’t coached since leaving Alki of the Cypriot first division six years ago.
Shum never actually announced his retirement, but the chances of him making a comeback decreased with every passing year. He made a surprise return to Israeli soccer in the position of sports director at Bnei Yehuda last season.
That adventure lasted less than six months, with Shum falling out with yet another club owner, this time Bnei Yehuda’s Barak Avramov.
There is no danger of that happening in the upcoming season – which gets under way on Friday – with Shum holding the ultimate power at Kfar Saba. It remains to be seen if Shum can resist interfering in professional matters the way he so despised while he was a coach.
Kfar Saba, guided by young coach Masay Dego, faces a tough battle to make an immediate return to the Premier League, with Hapoel Tel Aviv and Hapoel Petah Tikva among the teams it will have to compete against for the two automatic promotion berths.
“I’m not sure what our goals are this season as the squad has been built from scratch,” noted Shum. “This club is important to Israeli soccer and I couldn’t allow it to disappear. We are not Maccabi Tel Aviv or Maccabi Haifa, but this is still one of the biggest clubs in Israeli soccer.”
Shum explained how he found himself as the owner of Kfar Saba.
“Hundreds of people approached me and said ‘Please save Hapoel Kfar Saba.’ InitiallyI ignored them and I tried approaching everyone I knew who might be able to take over the club. I realized that if I won’t take it, no one will. I’m no oligarch and I’m not even one of the richest people in Kfar Saba, but what I have for this club is a lot of love, and usually love costs money. I have earned a living from soccer for many years, so perhaps it is time that my love for soccer will also cost me money.”
Shum clearly doesn’t have the financial means to take Kfar Saba back to its glory days which he remembers well. Winning another Premier League title to add to its one and only championship from the 1981/82 season remains as far-fetched as ever.
But with Shum, Kfar Saba fans have an owner whose heart and intentions are in the right place. And that is something which very few fans in Israeli soccer can actually firstname.lastname@example.org
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