soccer ball 88.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With the local Premier League in full flow, the end of January isn't exactly the time of the year you would expect to find a preseason soccer tournament held in Israel. But the Channel One Cup isn't just any preseason tournament.
Not only did last week's competition feature some of the best club sides Eastern Europe has to offer, including the top two from Ukraine and Moscow's Spartak and CSKA, it offered prize money worth a cool $2 million financed by none other than Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich.
For the last week Abramovich has been quietly making his presence felt in the country. As well as watching many of the Channel One Cup matches, he has hosted two high profile parties at the trendy Hanger 11 club in Tel Aviv, attracting numerous celebrities, including pop queen Pink.
Aside from Betar Jerusalem, the sole Israeli competitor which is in the midst of a crucial league campaign, the Cup has been a relatively important opportunity for the teams involved to try out players and systems during the offseason (the Russian and Ukrainian leagues only begin after the winter and the Serbians are on a winter break).
And for Betar, which is aiming to break into Europe's elite Champions League, the much hyped competition gave coach Itzhak Schum's team the chance to measure itself against high class European opposition.
To this end, there was some sort of a successful outcome, as Betar recovered from a defeat to eventual finalist Shakhtar Donetsk 3-0 in the opening game to beat CSKA 1-0 on Tuesday night to the obvious delight of Betar owner Arkadi Gaydamak.
But while there is value to the event for the teams involved - Spartak and CSKA finished second and third respectively in last year's Russian Premier League - it also felt shrouded in a strange atmosphere of secrecy.
The tournament is in its third year but has yet to attract any large crowds. The opening game at the capital's Teddy Stadium was well attended but that was only because most of the tickets were given away.
A few thousand came out for the next game at Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv where Spartak Moscow was beaten 3-0 by Ukraine's Dinamo Kiev, but all in all the crowds have been sparse at best.
As proof of the lack of interest among the Israeli public, only a few hundred people bothered to turn up for Betar's game against CSKA, although the bad weather was a contributing factor.
But all the while the tournament was promoted as if it is one of soccer's premier events. The opening party last Thursday night featured a top Russian rock band as well as Israeli pop group Metropolin.
Close to 100 Russian journalists were flown in to cover the tournament, it has employed dozens of staff members at each match and it even has its own theme tune played before each game, almost as if it were a Champions League tie.
On Monday it was rumored that the Betar vs CSKA match could be moved to Bloomfield to avoid the predicted snow, until Gaydamak was reported to have insisted the game be played in Jerusalem with the kick off time moved forward two hours to 6 p.m.
Walking around the opulent VIP area at half time and after the game it was obvious why Gaydamak was adamant to keep the venue. The tournament appeared to be more a chance for the movers and shakers of the Russian-Israeli community to touch base with their counterparts from Russia than for the various teams to play soccer.
Vodka flowed along with expensive wine and there seemed to be more waiters and waitresses serving the exquisitely prepared food than there were members of the public in the stands.
As the journalists huddled together in the close to freezing conditions, finding it difficult to type on the icy keyboards of their laptops Abramovich and Gaydamak viewed the game from behind the full length glass of the VIP box.
On Thursday night Kiev defeated Donetsk in the final at Bloomfield in front of a handful of people. No doubt Abramovich was there chatting to various business colleagues.
The tournament is due to return next season and it is doubtful whether it will attract any more public interest than it did this year, but Gaydamak wants Betar involved and reportedly has even been lobbying to move the entire competition to Jerusalem rather than just the games involving his club.
If this happens maybe Betar will consider promoting the event properly as the soccer tournament it is, rather than allowing it to be used as a venue for business meetings.