Sinai Says: Ohana a great soccer star, but politics are a whole other playing field

Expecting his masterful skills on the pitch to translate to the Knesset is unfair and unrealistic.

Naftali Bennett  and Eli Ohana. (photo credit: BAYIT YEHUDI SPOKESMAN)
Naftali Bennett and Eli Ohana.
The fact Eli Ohana officially entered the political world on Monday night came as little surprise to those who have followed him closely since the end of his playing career.
The Israeli soccer legend, widely recognized as one of the country’s greatest players ever, was never shy about his political opinions. He voiced his support for the Likud whenever he was given an opportunity and eagerly lashed out at those he felt were hurting Israel’s interests.
The vast majority of athletes, abroad and in Israel in particular, do their best to avoid any sort of controversy.
They gladly follow in the footsteps of basketball great Michael Jordan who famously said: “Republicans buy sneakers too,” when asked why he chose not to support black Democrat Harvey Gantt in his race for the US Senate in 1990.
Ohana never took that route and was always happy to speak out on any matter – whether or not he knew much about it – even though he always understood he risked angering many people.
Ohana received the nickname “The Prince” from Beitar Jerusalem fans in the 1980s, helping the club to its first-ever league championship in 1987.
He went on to win the European Cup Winners Cup with Belgian club Mechelen in 1988 before returning to Beitar in 1991 while it was in the second division. He led the team to promotion and to a championship the following season before ultimately retiring in 1997.
Ohana also shined with the Israel national team, scoring 17 goals in 51 appearances between 1984 and 1997.
His status as a national hero perhaps made him feel invincible, and the fact that he remained in the sporting public’s eye and ear following his retirement by virtue of his many media appearances allowed him to keep voicing his views on virtually any issue.
Within minutes of the announcement that he would be running on the Bayit Yehudi list in the upcoming elections, Ohana’s contentious quotes from the past began to surface.
Everyone was quickly reminded that he once said he wants to be the minister of education, which he later retracted, or that he expressed unequivocal support for the Gaza disengagement and then-prime minister Ariel Sharon in a 2005 interview with Yediot Aharonot, calling him one of Israel’s best premiers ever.
“Sharon can evacuate all the settlements and it would be fine by me,” he said at the time. “We have enough territory in which to live.”
The 50-year-old Ohana also explained why he can never see himself becoming a politician. He said that a politician needs to be a “liar and a manipulator,” and those are traits he doesn’t possess.
On Monday, Ohana said: “I have been a Likudnik my whole life, but I no longer believe in withdrawals. Like the rest of Israel, I woke up and went home, to Bayit Yehudi [Jewish Home].”
There is nothing new in a former athlete entering politics, in Israel or abroad, with former Olympic judoka Yoel Razvozov serving as an MK for Yesh Atid in the past Knesset and being placed at No. 9 in the party’s list for the upcoming elections.
Perhaps the best example of athlete- turned-politician is Bill Bradley.
An American Hall of Fame basketball player and former three-term Democratic US senator from New Jersey who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in the 2000 election.
Bradley won two NBA championships with the New York Knicks and a year after his retirement in 1977 he already ran for a seat in the United States Senate.
However, Bradley was never your typical athlete. He was offered 75 college scholarships, but declined them all to attend Princeton University.
After graduating in 1965, he attended Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, delaying the start of his NBA career by two years.
Ohana’s charm, on the other hand, is in his simplicity, something that doesn’t typically play well in the political sphere.
The negative stereotypes attached to athletes, and to soccer players in particular, regarding their low level intelligence and worldly acumen are generally untrue and unjust, however that doesn’t mean they are all fit for a post-playing career in parliament.
Ohana has already received a harsh welcome to public life by the ridiculing masses on social media and he will soon find out it will get worse.
His career as a player and coach, and especially as a media pundit, will make him a star in the never- ending Knesset squabbles and is bound to ensure he will appear in his fair share of headlines.
It remains to be seen though, if he can help make a change of substance the way members of Knesset should, but very few do these days.
Even as a coach, Ohana was hardly a success, which may not bode well for his leadership abilities.
He couldn’t help either Bnei Yehuda or Hapoel Kfar Saba avoid relegation from the Premier League and since 2008 has held the cushy position of the Israel under-19 national team coach.
After several rough years, he at least ended his tenure on a high, guiding the blue-and-white teens to last summer’s European Championships for the first time since 1997.
Even so, for all his glory as a player, his coaching career never took off.
Expecting his masterful skills on the pitch to translate to the Knesset is unfair and unrealistic.
Time will tell if Ohana is cut out to be a successful politician. But every indication, including his very own assessment, seem to point to an obvious answer.
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