Pleased to be yellow

Former Tottenham Hotspur star Ossie Ardiles is expected to bring the league title back to Betar.

By JEREMY LAST
September 21, 2006 18:33
Pleased to be yellow

Ardiles 298 kliger. (photo credit: )

 
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Having taken on one of the most highly pressured jobs in Israeli soccer, Ossie Ardiles, the new manager and head coach at Betar Jerusalem and his team are now sitting pretty at the top of the Israeli Premier League. It hasn't been easy. Betar was beaten in a Toto Cup game by arch rivals Hapoel Tel Aviv in Ardiles's first game in charge and then knocked out of the UEFA Cup by Dinamo Bucharest a few weeks later. But now, having won the first three ofef its league games, many local soccer writers are tipping Betar as odds-on to win the championship in May. And this is what Ardiles has been brought to the capital to do. The Argentinian is expected to achieve what no Betar coach has been able to achieve since 1998 - to bring the league title back to Jerusalem. This is something that would no doubt encourage Betar's thousands of fanatical supporters to party all night in Kikar Safra. Sitting in his compact manager's office at the Betar training ground in Bayit Vegan, Ardiles looks incredibly relaxed. He spends the entire half-hour interview with his shoes off and his feet on the table, talking excitedly about his plans to make Betar the champion of Israel again. The war with Hizbullah has come and gone and now the Argentinian is enjoying life in the Holy Land. Asked if he had any concerns about coming with his wife to live in such a volatile part of the world, Ardiles is resolute. "I have to say some people said something like this [that it is dangerous to live here], but I knew it was no problem whatsoever," he says. "When I signed it was before the war [with Hizbullah]. Of course, when the war was on, I was a little concerned. "There was a lot of tension, the championship was not starting, so then there was a little bit of concern but now there is not too much." Last season the yellow and black did well, finishing in third position. But it was nine months of turmoil. Betar legend Eli Ohana resigned as head coach after the first game, Dutchman Ton Caanen replaced him for less than two months before he was then replaced by Frenchman Luis Fernandez. Fernandez never looked happy at Betar, even walking out on the club on one occasion before coming back for the last few games of the season. Arkadi Gaydamak, the billionaire businessman who bought Betar last summer, was clearly not satisfied with third place. The Russian wants his team to be the best in the country and challenge for European honors. Ardiles understands this. "I talked to him [Gaydamak] the very first day that I arrived here. That was the only meeting I had with him. He told me very clearly - the team finished third last season and that's not good enough. He wants to be champion. And that's it. Since then, I have had messages from Vladimir [Shklar, Betar chairman], but he doesn't get involved. Basically I have to do my job." At his first press conference when he was introduced as manager, Ardiles promised his team would play exciting soccer. The club was busy over the summer bringing in a number of Israeli stars including midfielder Michael Zandberg from Maccabi Haifa and defender Shimon Gershon from Hapoel Tel Aviv as well as Brazilian striker Joeano Pinto and Chiliean midfielder Milovan Mirosevic. The team is now beginning to gel together and score goals. Ossie is not your regular head coach in Israeli soccer. Not only is he the only foreigner to coach an Israeli Premier League team this season, he is indeed a soccer legend, a World Cup winner. Back in 1978 Ardiles was an integral part of the Argentina national team which swept to victory over Holland in the World Cup Final in Buenos Aires. The wily midfielder then moved to English team Tottenham Hotspur where he spent two successful periods as a player, famously starring in the 1981 and 1982 FA Cup Finals alongside fellow Argentinian Ricky Villa. A decade later he went on to manage Spurs, but his experiment ended in failure. Ardiles says he still has a connection to Tottenham, although not an official one. "I am still friends with many of the old players. My house in England is very close to Tottenham," he says. Ardiles immediately cited Tottenham legend Steve Perryman as well as Villa as former players he is still in contact with. "Ricky was in England with me for a few months. We are still friends," Ardiles explains. "Before I came to Israel we went to Germany to see the World Cup together. He has a farm, and is working with a club in Cordoba, in Argentina." When he finished his playing career in 1989 Ardiles, like many former players, went straight into soccer management in England. Initially he did well, with his clubs achieving success. After gaining promotion with West Bromwich Albion he then went back to Tottenham. But his time at the London club ended in disaster and he was sacked with the team close to relegation. Since then he has had a checkered managerial career, taking charge of no less than seven clubs all over the world, including spells in Croatia with Dinamo Zagreb, Argentina with Racing Club and most recently Japan with Tokyo Verdi. None of his appointments have lasted more than two years, but this time, here in Jerusalem, the veteran coach believes he can get it right. "I believe our squad is the best in the league, and I am here to make us champions," Ardiles says. "For me anything else than champions will be a failure. This is the first step but after that, the potential for this club is to very very high." Explaining why he chose to take the Betar job, Ardiles constantly talks about the importance of the passion of the supporters, known to be the most fanatical in the country. "One of the things that was very important was the level of support here at Betar," Ardiles explains. "It's very very nice. In Japan the passion was not there. You need passion to play football. Here there is the passion." It was at the second league game of the season that Ardiles got to experience the full support of the Betar fans. The home game against Hapoel Tel Aviv at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem's Malha district was a sell out in an electric atmosphere. A last minute goal gave the hosts a 2-1 win to avenge the Toto Cup loss. Although he admits the highly charged atmosphere can make some of the players nervous, Ardiles says he thrives on it. "Teddy has a very special atmosphere, it's not easy to play there. It's not easy for the opposition, it's not easy for us. I felt the atmosphere was electric, there was something happening there," he says, comparing the atmosphere to that at the games of Argentinian champions Boca Juniors. "The games in Teddy have kind of a special life. It's not a normal game, because of the pressure, the players. Again it's wonderful. Some people take it OK and some people find it difficult. So we have to work on that." He may have only lived in Israel for a few months but Ardiles has already been made aware of the unique history and background at Betar. The club is integrally connected to its passionate fan base. But this fan base has an infamous attitude towards Arabs, which has meant that Betar is the only club in the Israeli top division to have never included an Arab player in its squad. Asked how he feels about this, Ardiles says he "would prefer this feeling did not exist," but does not intend to challenge it immediately. "If there was a [Arab] player was good enough I would think about bringing him here. But on the other hand, what I was saying about Teddy, it is such a special place. I don't know if an Arab player can play with this level of animosity from our own supporters. "In general terms, for me a player is a player wherever he comes from. It doesn't matter if he is black, white, or yellow, if he is religious or not, if he is Jewish, Arab, Christian whatever. It doesn't matter. I judge the person for what the person is, without color or anything. It doesn't matter where he comes from, his background, all that matters is if he is a good player and helpful for our team." Away from soccer, Ardiles says he is enjoying himself in Israel and settling in well. His Argentinian wife Silvia has moved here with him and on his few days off he has already begun exploring the country. He says, "Israel is a very very interesting country. It's very small, especially when compared with Argentina. I haven't been to the north, but i have been to the Dead Sea, Tel Aviv, and around Jerusalem. You can get in a car and just go all round the country. This is wonderful. "I like the weather as well. I like hot weather. Where I come from in Argentina, Cordoba, is similar to Jerusalem as it is in the middle of the country with a similar climate. In term of interesting places the most interesting is Jerusalem, historically and religiously." Ardiles says his younger brother and one of his two sons who both live in London have already come to visit him and more of his family will be coming soon. "I am very happy, I like to be in new country, I enjoy new things," he concludes with a smile. "Things are very good indeed."

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