A roller-coaster ride

Between losing its financial backing and battling relegation, Beitar’s season has been anything but boring.

Beitar Jerusalem players 521 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Beitar Jerusalem players 521
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Where does one start when trying to sum up Beitar Jerusalem’s season? Maybe with the team’s remarkable resurgence under the guidance of coach Eli Cohen? Or perhaps with the dismal start to the season that raised real concern among the club’s faithful that Beitar could lose its Premier League status for the first time since 1992?
And what about all the off-field issues? It seems a long time ago now, but the team was deducted two points for racist chanting by its supporters, and 16 Beitar fans were banned from stadiums for two-and-ahalf years for verbally abusing Arab workers after a much-publicized melee at Malha mall.
Perhaps the only way to summarize such a roller coaster campaign is to start at the beginning.
Beitar’s season was thrown into complete disarray before the team even played a single match. With owner Arkadi Gaydamak once more showing little interest in funding the club, Beitar found itself in desperate need of financial backing. It seemed to have found its saviors in late July when Americans Dan Adler and Adam Levin promised to return the club to its former glory after agreeing to purchase it from Gaydamak. However, the two charlatans pulled out of the deal at the last moment, increasing the off-field uncertainty.
Chairman Itzik Kornfein was left to scramble to balance the club’s budget and just about managed to do so by selling promising forward Hen Azriel to Maccabi Haifa for approximately $1 million and postponing the payment of part of his own salary, as well as those of star players Aviram Bruchian and Amit Ben-Shushan.
Roni Levy, who led Maccabi Haifa to three straight championships between 2004 and 2006, was supposed to rebuild the team last summer, but he left for Romanian powerhouse Steaua Bucharest at the beginning of June, resulting in his assistant David Amsalem taking charge.
But with the start of the season a mere five days away, Amsalem announced that he no longer wanted to guide the team, due to its bleak outlook following Adler’s and Levin’s shameless disappearance, leaving Kornfein in a desperate situation.
With little money at his disposal and even less time to spare, Kornfein had few options, especially after Israel under- 19 coach and Beitar legend Eli Ohana turned him down.
Kornfein decided to roll the dice with former Hapoel Ramat Gan and Hapoel Petah Tikva coach Yuval Naim, even though he had no experience at a club of Beitar’s caliber and was arrested together with his friend Ben Cohen on suspicion of blackmail during the summer.
But despite all that had transpired, Beitar actually got the season off to a surprisingly promising start, winning three of its first four matches.
Naim was celebrated as a genius, but it wouldn’t be long before results took a turn for the worse, and the coach took all the blame.
Beitar had won just one of its following 15 Premier League matches and found itself knee deep in the battle against relegation.
As if matters weren’t bad enough, Beitar was also deducted two points by the Israel Football Association’s disciplinary court at the start of 2012 for its fans’ racist abuse of Hapoel Tel Aviv’s Nigerian-born Israeli striker Toto Tamuz during a Premier League match between the teams.
Two days before the deduction, Beitar also lost its captain Aviram Bruchian, who left for Polonia Warsaw.
Three straight wins looked like they had steadied the ship, but Beitar soon returned to its losing ways and Naim was shown the door after Jerusalem suffered a humbling State Cup exit at the hands of Bnei Lod of the National League.
After exhausting almost every other option, Kornfein brought in Eli Cohen as Naim’s replacement. The 51- year-old Cohen, who began his coaching career at Maccabi Ramat Amidar in 1987, led Beitar to the league championship in 1996/97and returned for a second tenure to help save the team from relegation in 2001/02.
Jerusalem was just two points above the relegation zone when Cohen joined in mid-February, scoring a meager 16 goals in 25 matches – eight fewer than the second-worst productive team in the league at that stage.
Beitar failed to score in its first two matches under Cohen, and the pressure began to build once more. But a fortuitous penalty in stoppage time of its next match against Ironi Kiryat Shmona was converted by Eran Levy and gave Beitar its first win under Cohen.
Even the violent incident involving its fans at Malha Mall couldn’t derail the yellow-and-black, with that triumph against Kiryat Shmona starting a winning streak that reached seven matches last Saturday with a 1-0 victory over Ironi Ramat Hasharon.
Beitar no longer has to worry about being relegated to the National League, but its future remains shrouded in doubt.
Gaydamak has no intention of injecting money, and there seems to be no one waiting in the wings to take the club off his hands.
“It has been a tough season for the players, but now everything has turned on its head,” said Cohen after his team’s win over Ramat Hasharon. “Our goal for next season must be to regain a place among the top teams.”
Cohen clearly believes in his squad, but he also knows that a large question mark hangs over its fate.
In fact, Cohen is also still waiting to sign his own contract extension at the club, with Kornfein unable to make any plans for next season until he knows what funds he will have at his disposal.
Beitar is ending the season on a high note after pulling itself out of a deep hole, but its fans will not have a real reason for optimism until the club’s long-term future is secured.