It was with a measure of envy that I watched Maccabi Tel Aviv’s humbling Euroleague exit at the hands of Partizan Belgrade last Thursday.
For the Serbs not only outplayed the yellow-and-blue’s high-priced foreign mercenaries, but also showed the Israeli champs how far a small budget and proud local talent can take a team.
Long ago Maccabi made a directional decision to put winning before all else, however it has become increasingle clear that in its pursuit of victories, the club lost something far more important.
Once a proud symbol of Israeli success, Maccabi has drifted from its core values and has fatefully allowed itself to become just another basketball franchise. While it is easy to blame the current staff and management for the sad situation the team currently finds itself in, it is important to acknowledge that the side’s present state is the low point of an unfortunate process which began many years ago.
After being recently called out on the issue of his Israeli players having only a marginal role with the team, coach Pini Gershon – who guided Maccabi between 1998 and 2001, 2003 and 2006 and from 2008 onwards – was completely correct in his assessment that the local athletes played similarly limited roles on the great Tel Aviv teams which won back-to-back Euroleague titles in 2004 and 2005.
The sheen of all the triumphs and trophies made it easy to overlook the deterioration in the development of the Israeli players, but this latest 3-1 quarterfinal series defeat to Partizan was certainly a timely reminder of what should, and could be.
Gone are the days when Maccabi could outspend Europe’s top clubs.
Tel Aviv’s player budget this season was around $10.5 million, a respectable amount by Euroleague standards, but far from what the likes of CSKA Moscow, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Olympiakos and Panathinaikos, to mention just a few, splash around every year.
The growing gulf between its financial capabilities and those of the continent’s heavy spenders should have made Maccabi look for a different model on which to foster the team.
However, despite being completely unequipped, Tel Aviv instead chose to try and recreate the once-in-a-generation magic of five years ago by bringing in more and more foreign imports, resulting in a seemingly endless rebuilding process.
Numerous coaches (Spahija, Katash, Sherf, Birenboim, even Gershon himself) and players (Arroyo, Fizer, Batista, White, Lampe, among others) have come and gone over the past four seasons and will continue to do so as long as Maccabi fails to comprehend its financial position in European basketball.
Financial struggles forced Partizan to accept its role as a minor player in the Euroleague more than a decade ago, but the Serbian side embraced the challenge and is back in the Final Four for the first time since 1998.
Partizan coach Dusko Vujosevic, who has been at the club since 2001, sees many of his top prospects leave for a big contract abroad every summer. However, time and again he instills his playing system to up-and-coming homegrown prospects and has reached the Euroleague last eight in the last three seasons.
All this with a relatively paltry $2 million player budget.
It is true that Vujosevic has a much larger talent pool from which to pick in Serbia than Gershon does in Israel, but Maccabi could be doing so much more to close that margin.
Only $275,000 of Tel Aviv’s total budget of $17 million is invested in the youth department, which is forced to raise much of its money from the parents of the young players.
Partizan, on the other hand, allocates around 25% percent of its budget to growing the team’s future stars.
It should therefore come as little surprise that Belgrade can manage with only two Americans on its roster and is totally dependent on its local players.
At Maccabi, there are eight players who averaged more time on court in the Euroleague than Guy Pnini, who played more than any other Israeli-born player on the roster (15 minutes per contest).
Next up is Yaniv Green, who was irrelevant during most of the team’s encouters this season, averaging just over five minutes a game.
As long as Maccabi values victories more than anything else it will
continue to eternally search for bargain signings that don’t exist,
fighting a losing war against richer opponents it simply cannot compete
The time has come for Maccabi to accept the reality and take a leaf out of Partizan’s book.
Building the team around Israeli talent, with two or three significant
foreign signings, may at first result in some barren years. However,
anyone watching Partizan celebrate with its fans last week vividly saw
how much sweeter the rare successes will be.
Just as importantly, Maccabi will also become a true ambassador of
Israeli sports, once again making the country proud for all the right