The Negev Nuclear Research Center outside Dimona could probably learn a thing or two about keeping secrets from the Maccabi Tel Aviv football club.
Speculation regarding the identity of the yellow-and-blue’s coach for next year has been mounting over recent months, and yet, with the end of the season five days away, and with Champions League qualifiers starting in less than two months, the situation remains unclear.
If only there was an equivalent to Mordechai Vanunu – the former nuclear technician who revealed details of Israel’s nuclear weapons program to the British press in 1986 – at Maccabi to let the world know of the club’s plans.
Spaniard Pako Ayestaran led Maccabi to an unprecedented domestic treble after only joining the club in late August as an emergency replacement for Oscar Garcia. However, Maccabi has yet to announce if he will be back for another season and he has remained as diplomatic as ever when being questioned on the subject after every match.
Maccabi clinched a third straight league title last week to join Maccabi Haifa (2004-06) as the only teams to win three in a row since Hapoel Petah Tikva took five consecutive championships between 1959 and 1963.
After also claiming Israeli soccer’s second cup competition, the Toto Cup, earlier in the campaign, the yellow- and-blue capped an unprecedented season of success with a remarkable performance in last Wednesday’s State Cup final, steamrolling Hapoel Beersheba 6-2 in Haifa to become the first Israeli team to claim the domestic treble.
It would be fair to assume that had Maccabi planned on keeping Pako around for another season it wouldn’t have had any problem announcing it prior to the end of the campaign.
Declaring that he will not continue with the season still ongoing though, could certainly have had an adverse effect, the way it did at Hapoel Beersheba following the announcement of coach Elisha Levy’s departure ahead of the cup final.
But at Maccabi you never really know what dictates the thought process.
The only certainty at the club is that whatever decision is ultimately made, it will remain under tight wraps until it becomes public.
There have been plenty of hints along the way that Pako will be gone as soon as his contract expires at season’s end. Maccabi owner Mitch Goldhar spoke with the media ahead of the cup final, and while he complimented Pako, he wouldn’t provide any news regarding his status.
“Obviously Pako has done a great job,” he said. “Pako came in under difficult circumstances so he has done a great job, but I’m not here to talk about management or coaches. As always at Maccabi, we will announce things relating to the team in our time.”
However, one could examine another part of the press conference and find indications that the coach may soon be on his way back to Spain.
“We are a culture of change,” Goldhar said. “So we will continue to look at where ever there is an opportunity to improve and there will be changes.”
With the team dominating the local scene, the Jewish-Canadian entrepreneur, who sold his company Smart- Centres for $950 million last month, has his sights set on achieving greater success in Europe. Maccabi failed to qualify for the Champions League group stage in the past two seasons, but it did manage to reach the round of 32 of the Europa League in 2013/14.
“We have succeeded domestically, but we have not quite gotten to where we have wanted to be in terms of Europe so I think we will be thinking of what we need to do to be more competitive in Europe,” said Goldhar.
“We have to be realistic, the majority of our efforts are going to be domestic, but it is time for us to be more competitive in Europe within the parameters of UEFA’s financial fair play.”
Pako’s every interview and tweet over recent weeks have also been dissected for clues which might reveal if he would like to stay at the club, assuming of course Maccabi makes an offer.
“The last one and the most enjoyable! TREBBLE! Thanks for this trip!” he tweeted following the cup final, with some commentators suggesting that the final part of the sentence could be an indication he is about to leave.
Speaking after the 3-0 defeat to Beitar Jerusalem in league action on Monday, Pako didn’t look or talk like someone who will be back next season.
“As I said before, we will wait a few more days to know what is happening with my future,” he said.
There is little doubt that sports director Jordi Cruyff has already got a replacement standing by assuming Ayestaran is on his way out. Despite the remarkable success achieved during his three seasons at the club, the former Barcelona and Manchester United player, who signed a two-year contract extension two weeks ago, has already been through four coaching changes and will not be too concerned about going ahead with a fifth.
Maccabi will enter the Champions League qualifiers in the second round, where it will be seeded.
However, matters are set to get far more complicated in the next round where the yellow-and-blue is set to be unseeded and could face the likes of Scotland’s Celtic and FC Basel of Switzerland.
Maccabi will in all certainty also be unseeded in the final playoff round, meaning it would need at the very least to be perfectly prepared to go on and reach the group stage this summer.
Retaining the services of the coach would give the team valuable continuity, but it remains to be seen if that will be the decisive factor in Goldhar and Cruyff’s decision-making process. One way or another, the secret will be revealed over the next week.