Sports: Playing fair

The skills required to lead from the sidelines are different from those needed on the playing field.

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September 16, 2005 12:13

 
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Eli Ohana's surprise resignation last Saturday night as head coach of popular soccer club Betar Jerusalem caught thousands of Jerusalemites and other sports fans off guard. The so-called "King of Betar" was more than just the team's coach or one of its former great players. He was an icon. In the eyes of the team's most dedicated fans (of which there are tens of thousands), Ohana was Betar. He represented everything they believed in and felt themselves to be from their socioeconomic group to their political leanings to the free-flowing, high-scoring attack style of soccer (which is, of course, really just a metaphor for the attack-or-be-attacked lifestyle they aspire to lead.) But what Ohana is not and even his most loyal of fans had begun to realize this lately is a great soccer coach. And even though his shortcomings in that department had little to do with his resignation, the fact that the player with the golden touch never amounted to more than just an average coach cannot be ignored. Ohana resigned on Saturday night after his team lost a home game to Upper Nazareth 2-1, but claimed later that he made his decision days earlier and would have stepped down regardless of the game's result. The previous Friday, the club's new owner, Russian-born billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak, had been quoted in a Yediot Aharonot interview as saying that Ohana wasn't a natural leader. He said he would give the coach a couple more months to prove himself. With quotes from the interview being leaked as early as Monday, Gaydamak's comments created a storm at Betar. Even an impromptu press conference, in which the owner claimed that his words were being taken out of context and that Ohana would remain with the club for years to come, couldn't calm the black clouds. With public and private doubts about his leadership mounting, Ohana decided to hang up his whistle for good, rather than fight through the crisis a surprising move given that he was popularized largely for his "take no prisoners," headstrong qualities. But perhaps the change of tactic at this point in his game was warranted. THE THIRD youngest of nine children from a poor, traditional family in Jerusalem's Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood, Ohana rose through the youth soccer ranks quickly at Betar and found himself a member of the professional team at the tender age of 16. After building a name for himself as one of Israel's top players, offers came in from clubs around Europe and Ohana moved to Belgium in 1987 to play for KV Mechelen, where his career soared to new heights. Mechelen raced through the 1988 European Cup Winners' Cup and Ohana, in a career-defining moment, assisted on the only goal in the competition's final, as the team upset mighty Ajax Amsterdam to take the title. Ohana played two more seasons in Belgium and one in Portugal before returning to Israel and to his beloved Betar, which had fallen on hard times and had been relegated to the lower National League. His decision to return to Israel at the peak of his career when other players in the same situation were opting for the big bucks and glory of European play solidified Ohana's superstar status among Betar fans. With Ohana aboard, Betar fought its way back to the Premier League and in 1994 won the championship for only the second time in team history. Ohana played six more seasons, leading the team to two more championships before retiring and taking over as head coach in 1999. But after a superstar career as a player, Ohana's track record as head coach was mediocre at best. In his debut season, coaching many of his former teammates, Ohana led Betar to the State Cup final, where the team lost in penalties to rival Hapoel Tel Aviv. A new owner arrived at the end of that season and sent Ohana packing. Ohana registered only modest success coaching other teams between 2000 and 2003, but was nevertheless given a second shot to lead Betar two years ago, when, for the second time in a space of only a few years, new owners took over the team. But his second term was no more impressive than the first. Even though the team's goals had changed less money and fewer superstars put Betar in rebuilding mode, so chasing the league championship wasn't a priority Ohana lacked the skills to develop a young and inexperienced squad and carry it forward. However, Ohana's shortcomings as a coach should not have come as a surprise to the Betar management. In fact, the tale of the star player-cum-lackluster coach is a familiar one, repeated countless times in Europe and North America. The skills required to lead a team from the sidelines are quite different from those needed to lead it on the playing field. Unlike a star player, who sits at the top of the pecking order and can socialize with whomever he wants, a coach must support the entire squad from the youngest teenage trainees to the veterans, whom in Ohana's case he had celebrated titles with in the 1990s. This was Ohana's first challenge. A coach cannot allow himself or his players to trust skill and instinct over tactics, something for which Ohana-the-player was notorious. Yet Ohana-the-coach was hard-pressed to find players who equaled him in skill or instinct, and his lack of tactics came back to haunt him on the sidelines. A coach also needs to appreciate the full range of players and positions. But Ohana-the-coach echoed Ohana-the-player: he was an easy fan of the attacking end. And even though creativity, determination and competitiveness three arenas in which Ohana excels are crucial to success as both player and coach, their implementation and balance must vary according to the hat one is wearing. Ohana, however, never changed his fedora. Over the course of time, there have been numerous Hall-of-Fame-caliber players, both in Israel and abroad, who've managed to overcome the inherent challenges in transitioning from player to coach. Sometimes their success as coach is, paradoxically, a credit to their eroding skills as a player late in their careers, forcing them to see the game in a new light. Other times, their natural-born leadership qualities help former stars communicate and motivate even the average players. And some player-cum-coaches just love the game so much that they manage to submerge their egos enough to reinvent themselves and earn the right to stay in the game. But while Ohana did not manage to fit any of these bills, he can at least take solace in the fact that his to-date lackluster coaching career puts him in good company from Manchester United legend Bobby Charlton to former NBA star Michael Jordan. And really, at 41, Ohana still has time to redeem himself if he can find an owner willing to take that chance on him again.

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