A crisis of biblical proportions

You know a team’s in trouble when its coach turns to the Book of Job to describe the situation.

BETAR JERUSALEM coach Eli Cohen 370 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
BETAR JERUSALEM coach Eli Cohen 370
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Even in its worst nightmares, Beitar Jerusalem never imagined that it would enter its final match of the Premier League season at Bnei Sakhnin on Saturday in danger of facing demotion to the second division.
It wasn’t that long ago that qualification for European competition for next season seemed like a realistic target for Beitar. Jerusalem’s 2-0 victory over Hapoel Tel Aviv on January 21 extended the side’s unbeaten streak to eight matches and propelled it up to fourth place in the standings, just seven points from league-leader Maccabi Tel Aviv.
The following Saturday, Beitar owner Arkadi Gaydamak announced the signing of Muslims Dzhabrail Kadiyev and Zaur Sadayev from Chechen club Terek Grozny, rocking the club to its core.
Beitar is still reeling.
Anti-Muslim xenophobia by fans in the stands – as well as off-field protests that included burning down a room in the club’s offices in Bayit Vagan – directly affected the team’s performance on the pitch, with Beitar winning just one of its 13 matches since that victory over Hapoel.
Jerusalem has lost eight of those games, including a 3-1 defeat to Maccabi Netanya at Teddy Stadium last Saturday.
The defeat means that Beitar faces the prospect of losing its top-flight status for the first time since 1992 on Saturday, prompting coach Eli Cohen to borrow from Job in his post-match TV interview.
“The thing which we greatly feared has come upon us,” said Cohen after the defeat by Netanya, using the words of the biblical story’s tragic protagonist. “We are obviously not strong enough to deal with the situation. People may call this an excuse, but everything that happened with the Chechens has affected us. We tried psychologists, we tried changing the lineup, but Beitar is in a deep crisis.”
Jerusalem has looked like a shadow of its old self in recent months, conceding soft goals and dropping points against the league’s weakest sides.
Five defeats from seven matches saw Beitar plummet into the bottom half of the standings and the relegation playoffs, but even then, it seemed implausible that the team would actually find itself in peril.
The 1-0 victory over Hapoel Beersheba three weeks ago snapped a 10-match unbeaten streak, and at the time it looked as if the club would maintain its Premier League status.
“We have avoided relegation. It’s all over,” said midfielder Kobi Moyal, not knowing what was about to unfold.
Now two consecutive losses to Hapoel Haifa and Maccabi Netanya by a 3-1 score-line, combined with other results, have got Beitar fans fearing for their team’s future – that is, those supporters who didn’t turn their backs on the club after it signed the Chechens.
Despite its dire situation, Beitar can even afford to lose by a single goal at Sakhnin and still stay up.
However, a defeat by two goals or more, combined with victories for Netanya over Hapoel Beersheba and for Hapoel Acre at Hapoel Haifa, could see Jerusalem relegated on goal difference.
“The players laughed when I told them that we needed a draw against Netanya to ensure our survival,” Cohen said last weekend. “These are terrible days for the club, and we enter our final match in trouble.”
Shortly after reaping all the publicity from the Chechen carnival, Gaydamak vanished from the scene once more, leaving everyone else at the club to deal with the upheaval he had created.
Former Hapoel Kfar Saba and Hapoel Tel Aviv owner Eli Tabib has been mentioned as a possible successor to Gaydamak, but for the time being he seems uninterested in investing real money in the despondent club.
The drop into the relegation playoffs has cost Beitar millions of shekels in potential revenue, further complicating the club’s already disastrous financial situation.
Relegation to the National League could be a death blow to Beitar.
Jerusalem’s players are still waiting to receive their salaries for March, but matters will get a whole lot worse should the team fall out of the Premier League and lose crucial income from TV revenue.
“We have experienced a three-month tsunami. I don’t think any other club could have survived this,” said Cohen in typical style after the defeat by Haifa two weeks ago. “This club was founded on the ninth of Av [historically a day of tragedy for the Jews] and has had problems from day one. Beitar is important to the league and the country. People need to wake up and start preparing the club for next season.”
Cohen has gone from hero to villain in the past four months, but there should be no doubt that he truly cares about Beitar. “I’m really worried about Beitar’s situation,” he continued at the time. “I don’t know what will be left here next season. The club needs an owner. We deserve to be among the league’s top four teams, and we can fight for the championship if we strengthen the squad.”
The lack of an active and investing owner is a real concern, but there are far more pressing matters following recent results.
Demotion to the second division would cripple Beitar and completely scare away any possible suitors.
It is perhaps only fitting that after all that has transpired this season, Beitar’s decisive match will be played at one of its most bitter rivals and the only current Premier League team hailing from an Arab town.
Sakhnin fans would like nothing more than to see Beitar relegated at their stadium, but regardless, their team is also desperate for the points: Any result other than a win could also see Sakhnin drop to the National League.
An entire season will come down to 90 minutes.
But as ever, for Beitar, there seems to be so much more on the line. •