Mac Haifa 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Up and down the pitch he walked, seemingly in a world of his own. All alone in the center of an empty stadium, Yitzhak Schum was celebrating Hapoel Tel Aviv's victory in his very own special way.
Thirty minutes after the final whistle had sounded, the celebrations around the stadium were in full swing. Hapoel had just beaten Chornomorets Odessa 3-1 and booked its place in the group stage of the UEFA Cup. But Schum was absent from the festivities. With fireworks going off in the sky and confetti filling the air, the coach chose to distance himself from the carnival, preferring to be by himself.
"In the life of a coach and a player, there are some significant moments and I'm fortunate to have experienced some of them," Schum said after the match. "Today is one of the greatest moments in my coaching career."
It is no coincidence that Schum kept his distance from the party. The coach has only guided Hapoel for less then four months, but the rumors of his departure have been circulating for almost as long.
Schum has one of the most impressive resumes in Israeli soccer, guiding Maccabi Haifa to the Champions League in the 2002/03 season and winning a league and cup double with Greek giant Panathinaikos. However, it wasn't the coach's CV that has almost cost him his job. Schum, 58, fell out with the team's owners even before the season began over remarks made by his agent in a newspaper interview. The owners were offended by the comments and from that moment onwards, it seemed to be only a question of time before Schum would be pushed out of the club.
However, over the following few months, the coach blocked out everything that was going on around him and led Hapoel on an unlikely European run. Schum turned the UEFA Cup into a lifeline and gave the club's board no option but to allow him to keep his job.
At the same time Schum was strolling across the field at Bloomfield Stadium, 1,500 kilometers away another Israeli coach was also on his way to proving his doubters wrong.
Thirty-nine-year-old Maccabi Haifa coach Roni Levy is one of Israel's most successful active coaches after leading his team to the last three Premier League championships. However, Haifa's performances in Europe in the last couple of seasons had brought many to say that Levy can't handle Continental soccer. But on Thursday, all that changed. Haifa defeated Litex Lovech 3-1 in Bulgaria and also advanced to the group stage of the UEFA Cup. At once, all the criticism directed at the coach stopped.
"After taking three league championships, I shouldn't need to be answering the critics," Levy maintained after returning to Israel from his team's match. "We were close to shocking Liverpool [in the third qualifying round of the Champions League] and everybody in Israel said it was a failure. People have unrealistic expectations."
Unlike Schum, Levy has always enjoyed the backing of Haifa owner Jacob Shachar, who often refers to Levy as the best coach in Israel.
Nevertheless, Levy shook a huge monkey off his back with the win on Thursday night. Slowly but surely he is earning his place on the list of Israel's greatest ever coaches, which includes Schum.
Almost 20 years separate Levy and Schum, but in the space of just three hours the two coaches presented Israeli soccer with one of its most exciting nights ever.
Thursday was just the beginning. Levy and Schum each have at least four more matches in the UEFA Cup over the next two months and you would be lucky to find anyone who is willing to predict that the coaches will end their European adventures after the group stage. But that's no surprise after their latest exploits, only a fool would doubt them again.