While it often may seem like Eli Tabib epitomizes all that is wrong with Israeli soccer, he is in fact only a symptom to the troubles plaguing the local game.
Beitar Jerusalem’s owner is sometimes portrayed as the source of all evil, when in fact he is only a pawn in a game played by far more powerful, and at times, vicious forces.
Make no mistake, Tabib is no saint.
District Court Judge Amnon Straschnov ruled back in August 2000 that Tabib was unfit to own a soccer club due to his criminal record, which included faking a passport in order to escape the country.
However, Tabib looked nothing like a seasoned criminal in recent days, seeming genuinely frightened for his life after he was shot and lightly wounded outside his home in Kfar Shmaryahu late Saturday night.
Tel Aviv police said Tabib had just pulled up at his house and was sitting in his car when a shooter stepped off a motorcycle, walked up and fired three shots at him, with one bullet hitting Tabib in the hand. The shooter then ran to the waiting motorcycle, and he and the driver fled.
Tabib was taken to the hospital with light wounds to his hand and was released hours later.
As he was leaving the hospital, Tabib told reporters that he believes the shooting was linked to soccer, saying “these were people linked to soccer, there is no connection to business.”
Police aren’t as sure as Tabib what the motive was for the shooting or who the gunman was, and said they haven’t ruled out anything.
Even though he didn’t say so in as many words, Tabib initially implied that Hapoel Tel Aviv fans may have been behind the attack.
He also insisted that was the case in October 2013 when a hand grenade was stuck to the gate of his house and was meant to explode when he opened it, only to malfunction.
However, in that incident it soon became clear that the assailants were in fact linked to Israeli organized crime and that Tabib was being warned after refusing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The suspects in that case, who are also believed to be behind the throwing of a stun grenade into his backyard in December 2011, were members of a very well-known criminal organization in Israel and had been trying to extort money from Tabib.
It is believed that the mobsters wanted a cut from the transfer of striker Toto Tamuz from Beitar Jerusalem to Hapoel Tel Aviv in September 2010, when Tabib was a part-owner of Hapoel, as well as from the sale of Beitar by Arkadi Gaydamak in the summer of 2013.
Tabib was the owner of Hapoel Tel Aviv until July 2012, leaving the club after continuous protests by the supporters.
The involvement of organized crime in local soccer has never been a secret, but has nevertheless not been treated accordingly by police.
Match fixing, especially in the lower leagues, has received most of the headlines down the years, but the issue goes far beyond illegal gambling.
A soccer club is an ideal place for money laundering, with large sums being transferred daily, not always with documentation.
Just over a day after Saturday’s shooting, Tabib was sentenced to six months of community service by the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court.
Tabib was convicted last June of assaulting a minor and of disruption of justice, being found guilty of attacking a Hapoel Tel Aviv fan with his bodyguard outside his home in March 2012 and erasing the footage of the incident from his computer after it was captured by his security cameras.
Tabib plans to appeal the conviction and the sentence.
Following the sentencing, Tabib’s ownership of Beitar is set to be reevaluated by the Israel Football Association. However, assuming Tabib chooses to appeal, and with the appeal process expected to drag out for years, it seems unlikely the IFA will make any definite decision in the near future.
The bigger question is whether Tabib will decide to leave Beitar on his own.
He said he will reconsider his future over the coming weeks following Saturday’s incident, but surprisingly didn’t rush to announce he was done with Israeli soccer.
He was, however, outraged with his sentencing by Judge Daniel Be’eri.
“This makes me want to leave Israel because I was trying to defend myself and in the end I was the one found guilty,” said Tabib, who made his fortune in the US over the past couple of decades in the clothing industry and still spends much of his time in Miami, Florida.
“Imagine I had a gun the other day and I would have shot those who shot me. I would have been the one charged. When will I be able to defend myself? When I’m six feet under?” Tabib later clarified that he doesn’t think Hapoel fans had any involvement in the shooting.
“I said it had to do with soccer, not Hapoel Tel Aviv,” he explained.
“I hope the police does its job and finds these people. I expected that the people who left the grenades would also be caught and then the truth would come out.”
Tabib made the mistake of getting involved with unsavory characters who don’t take no for answer and has found himself in over his head.
Had they wanted him dead, he would have been so long before Saturday night. They want him to pay them, but in characteristically bullheaded fashion, Tabib refuses to.
The police’s failure grows with every passing day that it doesn’t bring those haunting Tabib to justice.
Israeli soccer would be better off without Tabib, but it has got even bigger problems. It has still not managed to rid itself from the criminal elements that have dogged it for many years and one can only hope this story ends well. It sure doesn’t seem to be heading in that direction.