(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Ehud Olmert has been going through a tough time of late. The prime minister's popularity has been dropping at an incredible rate since the debacle of last summer's war with Hizbullah, while both he and members of his party seem to constantly be questioned on corruption allegations.
But as his personal and political life gets a continuing battering, like many Jerusalemites, Ehud can take solace in sports. While for months Olmert's beloved Betar Jerusalem looked shaky in its position at the top of the Israeli soccer Premier League, Saturday night's last minute winner against Hapoel Kfar Saba, coupled with Maccabi Haifa's 1-0 win over Maccabi Tel Aviv on Sunday, means that it is now time for the Olmert family and all Betar supporters to put that champagne on ice.
Betar has two former players as well as the anticipated return to form of Haifa to thank. Until the 83rd minute at Teddy Stadium on Saturday, Betar had played another boring and uneventful game with the excitement only temporarily lifted by Derek Boateng's stunner of a volley which gave the home side a 1-0 lead.
But when Kfar Saba fooled the Betar defense, leaving Jose Duarte free to slot home, the league leader knew it had to look for another goal. And it was ex-Betar man Ofer Talker who headed past his own 'keeper as Barak Itzhaki breathed down his neck.
The result put Betar seven points clear at the top of the standings, but Maccabi Tel Aviv still had to play its match. However, even though the Betar faithful have spent the entire season singing the praises of the now erratic striker-turned-winger Amit Ben-Shushan with the chant "Mi Ze Arbeitman" (Who is [Shlomi] Arbeitman?), laughing at the former Betar striker's lack of success since leaving the capital, it was Arbeitman himself who scored a rather clumsy ninth minute goal for Haifa on Sunday night that handed Maccabi Tel Aviv its first loss in 20 league matches.
In the Israeli media, Talker's controversial header was immediately branded "the goal that won the championship." There may be seven games left, but Betar has four games against lower quality sides before it faces Hapoel Tel Aviv at Teddy on May 12. With both Maccabi and Hapoel Tel Aviv losing form, a win against Hapoel will more than likely send the Israeli Premier League trophy back to the capital for the first time since 1998.
As well as being an own goal, Betar's winner on Saturday night angered the Kfar Saba players and management for another reason and brought an old argument back to the forefront. As Betar attacked the Kfar Saba goal in the closing moments, visiting midfielder Guillermo Israilevich inexplicably fell to the ground inside his own penalty area and lay there as Betar pushed forward. The Betar players cleverly managed to play around him and with a minute left, Aviram Bruchian put in a great cross which led to the goal.
After the match, Kfar Saba coach and former Betar player Eli Ohana was outraged at the "lack of sportsmanship." But the incident highlighted a growing problem in soccer all over the world. If a player on an opposing team goes down injured, it has become customary to kick the ball out of play to allow the injured player to get treatment. This has given players the opportunity to play on the moral values of their fellow professionals, knowing that they can stop the flow of the game by feigning injury.
While there is no proof this was the case on Saturday night, there is no way of knowing it was not. It is time for UEFA to take control and put a stop to this by giving referees the authority. If a player is injured the referee will soon notice or be told. It should not be up to the players to have to make a decision of whether to stop the game themselves, especially in such a crucial time as in the Kfar Saba game.
It is unfair to blame the Betar players for being unsportsmanlike when for them, if the referee had not blown his whistle, they knew that the most important thing for their club was to push for the winner. It might be the best decision they ever made.