Time and money may be running out for Betar, the iconic Jerusalem soccer club.
By JEREMY LAST
It was a cold and rainy evening in Kiryat Shmona on Sunday when the Betar Jerusalem circus came to town; not exactly perfect conditions for a professional soccer match.
But by 11 p.m. the league champion had gone through a roller-coaster ride of a game that somehow managed to reflect the crazy, topsy-turvy nature of the team's season so far.
Jerusalem came back from behind three times against Ironi Kiryat Shmona to win its ninth round State Cup tie 4-3, with under-fire striker Barak Itzhaki scoring a stunning winner six minutes before the final whistle.
The hundreds of visiting supporters erupted in joyous song, seemingly celebrating Itzhaki as the savior of the club's season.
But the more telling emotion to be found in the small soccer stadium in the North was etched on the face of first team coach Reuven Atar as he was, as usual, hounded by the press for post-match interviews.
Atar was a vision of relief, full of the knowledge that defeat would have meant the end of his time at the helm of one the most volatile organizations in the history of Israeli sports.
Perhaps Atar even half hoped his team would have played just as apathetically in the second half as it did in the first, which ended with Kiryat Shmona leading 2-1. A defeat would at least have ensured that he could walk away from the job that places him at the epicenter of a yellow-and-black hurricane that takes in, and often destroys, everything in its path.
Atar had been under the most extreme pressure for the previous week following an embarrassing 4-0 loss at arch-rival Hapoel Tel Aviv in the Israeli Premier League on February 9.
Many experts had surmised that the only reason he had not been sacked was that former goalkeeper-turned-club-chairman Itzik Kornfein had not managed to get hold of the team's rich Russian-born owner Arkadi Gaydamak in time to put the wheels in motion.
So the cup win in the North provided what may only be a stay of execution for Atar.
Talking to reporters after the game, he described the result as "beautiful."
"We never lost the game," he insisted. But he then stressed that the result "does not absolve us" from what happened last week.
"This season there have been a lot of bad situations, ups and downs," Atar added, in what could be described as the understatement of the year.
"The crowd was right to be angry [after the Hapoel game]. Betar is a club that relies on, and needs, good results. Without good results there will always be problems."
Betar Jerusalem is a club with a rich history, and some of its greatest moments have occurred over the last three years. But over the past year, the club has seen a sharp downturn in its performance and worrying reports of waning finances.
Avi Waller, a long-term supporter and the former editor of the club's official Web site, says the sudden fall from grace is difficult to cope with. "As a fan and as a former worker at Betar, it's very sad for me to see the team falling from the Olympus it was on only few months ago," he says.
HAPOEL TEL AVIV'S Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa was packed to the rafters for last Monday's Premier League game, with Betar fans taking up at least a third of the 16,000 seats.
While the expectant visiting supporters filled the ground with songs of encouragement, sitting in the VIP section a clearly stressed Kornfein leapt to his feet each time Jerusalem came close to scoring in the first half.
When Betar's defense fell apart in the last few minutes of the first period and let in goals the mood began to change. The team went all out for goals when it came back on to the pitch in the second period, but this left too much space at the back and two more goals were conceded.
Kornfein sat slumped in his chair and the fans were left in disbelief. Thousands of gawping men dressed in yellow and black packed behind the goal where young goalkeeper Ariel Harush continued to try to keep the Hapoel strikers at bay, unable to take in the the thrashing the team in red had dished out. The flags were not being waved and the singing turned to cursing.
The whole situation was in stark contrast to the joyous atmosphere of the previous two seasons when Jerusalem steamrollered nearly every team that stood in its path to success and adulation.
In May 2007 Jerusalem won the league title for the first time in nine years, clinching it with a win over Tel Aviv. A year later, Betar beat Hapoel on penalties in the State Cup final at the National Stadium in Ramat Gan to win the trophy for the first time since 1989.
The notoriously fanatic Betar supporters erupted in wild excitement after the cup win, surrounding the team bus as it returned to the capital on the highway, literally singing the players' praises. A couple of weeks later, Gaydamak put on a massive celebratory concert in Sacher Park, where pop stars including Sarit Hadad performed.
Last week's defeat at Hapoel was particularly painful for the thousands who have dedicated themselves to Betar Jerusalem. It left Jerusalem in fourth position in the Premier League standings, 11 points off leader Maccabi Haifa, effectively ending any chance it had of retaining the title.
The supporters were disgusted, calling for Atar to be sacked immediately. Half an hour after the game, a group stood outside the stadium exit shouting obscenities at Atar. And that night, graffiti were daubed on the walls of the team's training ground, encouraging the ousting of the coach.
When the players returned to training two days after the game, the police had to be called after dozens of angry fans broke into the field to disrupt the session and protest Atar's continuing employment.
Since the Kiryat Shmona win the situation has calmed a little, but it is still far from what it was during the periods of success.
A small group of young fans gathered to watch the training last Friday.
"We felt despair and disappointment after the game at Bloomfield. The players had given up their responsibility," says 14-year-old Eitan Ben-Dan. "This situation is difficult for everyone. Atar must quit, and we have to use the younger players more. I think someone will come to buy the club. We hope next year we will win the league. But we will never give up. Once you're a Betar fan, you're committed for life."
IT ALL feels like a far cry from the summer of 2005 when Gaydamak took control and began pumping millions of shekels into the organization, buying the best players in Israel and some from abroad with the aim of first turning Betar into the best team in Israel and then a force to be reckoned with in Europe.
In his early days at Jerusalem, Gaydamak repeatedly stated that he wanted Betar to represent the Jewish people on the world stage, a kind of ambassador through sports.
Soon success came, but the one thing that was missing throughout the sudden period of achievement - some might say overachievement - was stability.
Gaydamak was rarely satisfied and regularly moved quickly to sack the team's coach if he felt things weren't moving forward as he expected. In three and a half years he sacked six coaches, with Itzhak Schum, who left in the first week of this season, the most recent to be shown the door.
Even though he had led the team to the double, Gaydamak was concerned with Schum's qualities after Jerusalem was knocked out of the UEFA Champions League in the first qualifying round, losing 5-0 at Polish side Wisla Krakow.
"You have to have stability, and stability starts at the top," says Gary Vandermolen, a British-born former Betar striker who starred for the team in the 1980s. "When they fired Schum, I think that was the sign of things to come. That's not what I call business management. You need to change the training methods, take a look at things rather than acting rashly."
Gaydamak was always a loose cannon, one minute praising his players, another minute publicly ridiculing defender Shimon Gershon on television for missing a penalty. The source of the Moscow native's apparently vast cash flow was never completely clear, so those involved with the club always knew there was a chance it could vanish just as suddenly as it appeared.
When at the start of September last year he began sacking nearly the entire Betar Jerusalem management team, including chairman Eli Arazi, spokesman Oded Zargari and marketing manager Karen Fenigel, it was widely assumed to simply be another of Gaydamak's bizarre business decisions.
It was similar to the incident a month earlier when he had called a press conference in his Jerusalem office, where he announced that former coach Luis Fernandez would be returning to the club, only for it to turn out a few weeks later that Fernandez had no intention of moving back to Jerusalem.
But after Gaydamak sacked Schum and replaced him with Reuven Atar at the end of August and then fired Arazi, putting Kornfein in his place a few weeks later, it became apparent that these were more likely to have been financially motivated moves.
"Of course, we all were very nervous," says Waller, recalling those dark days in the Betar office in Givat Shaul. "No one knew what would come next, and we all felt that the end of those last few years was coming."
Frenchman Philippe Solomon, an adviser to former French international Fernandez during his time at Betar in 2006, said he was sure Gaydamak had fallen into financial problems.
"When I was called after the press conference announcing the return of Luis, I told everyone that his return was impossible. They laughed at me, but I was right. Gaydamak cannot afford Luis anymore, nor can he afford to have a strong Betar team as was his ambition in the beginning," Solomon says. "Atar is certainly cheaper than Schum, and Kornfein cheaper than Arazi and [former general manager] Giora Spiegel. But money is not everything. Leadership and competence are the key to success. And Betar has no competent leader."
Now, in the fourth year of his reign, it is not only his money that has gone missing, but Gaydamak himself has fallen off the face of the Israeli scene. He had already been a suspect in France for allegedly being part of the infamous Angolagate arms smuggling and tax evasion scandal in the 1990s, and an international warrant had been issued for his arrest.
At the same time, Gaydamak was under investigation for money laundering in Israel, although he vehemently denied reports that in 2000 he transferred nearly half a million shekels out of a Bank Hapoalim account as part of a larger money-laundering scheme.
After he failed in an ambitious bid to become elected as mayor of Jerusalem in November 2008, Gaydamak simply posted the required $2.5 million guarantee with the Petah Tikva District Court for the money-laundering charges and left Israel, and Betar Jerusalem, behind last December.
It has now been several months since he was last heard from publicly, putting massive strain on the skeleton management at Betar.
NO ONE at the club will provide specific figures as to the financial stability of the organization, but from the goings-on that have come about since Gaydamak's departure, it is clear that things are not going well and don't look like they will be improving any time soon.
In January three top players - Ghanaian midfielder Derek Boateng, defender Yoav Ziv and midfielder Moshe Ohayon - left Betar and the only new player brought in was untested Ashdod SC playmaker Nir Nahum.
But the sale of players is not the only indicator of a weak economic climate at the team, which was until very recently considered the richest in the country.
Despite the massive wages of many of the star players - including Gershon, who earns a reported NIS 130,000 a month; Idan Tal, who earns NIS 160,000 a month; and goalkeeper Tvrtko Kale, who gets NIS 110,000 a month, which the club is committed to - the club has introduced minor cost-cutting measures such as ending the provision of a hot meal to the players after each training session.
Photographer and fan's site editor Asaf Shaked, who was initially hired in November to replace Waller, was quickly appointed as club spokesman as well.
Shaked says that although Gaydamak is out of the country, there is financial stability at the club, at least for this season.
"It is a slight problem that he [Gaydamak] is not in Israel, but all the money that we need until the end of the season is in the bank," he says. "But we don't know what will happen next season. We don't know if Mr. Gaydamak will stay or not. But at least we have a good team here, and we hope we're going to win the cup and maybe also the championship. Right now everything in Betar is OK. If you lose, everything is bad. At the moment everything is good, but with one loss everything can change. Generally, all the players feel good in Betar."
Still, Gaydamak is believed to want to sell the club, but in the current international economic climate, it is going to be very difficult to find anyone who is willing to invest in what will, at least at the start, be nothing but a loss maker.
"I really hope the team will find a new and serious owner who will invest for the long run, though in these difficult economic times it's hard to believe it will happen," says Waller, who was first employed at Betar as the manager of its youth division and has now moved to Tel Aviv, where he works for a PR firm. "I think he will sell Betar, at any price. Every day he owns the club is a big loss for him."
THE LOSS at Hapoel created a negative atmosphere among the players, which wasn't helped by Kornfein's decision to punish the entire first team squad by fining them NIS 10,000 and then attempting to show solidarity by fining himself the same amount.
Having been knocked out of both the Champions League and the Toto Cup at an early stage, the State Cup is the only chance Betar has of a trophy this season - a starkly contrasting situation to the previous two years when the club was challenging for every piece of silverware to the very end.
As much as Kornfein is believed to have wanted to let Atar go, he not only failed to get Gaydamak's approval, but knew that he would probably have to reemploy Schum, who is still under contract at Betar, as there would not be enough money to hire someone new while continuing to pay Atar.
The inexperienced chairman, who played for Betar for more than a decade, is in an increasingly difficult position. On the one hand he is ostensibly the man in control of the entire club, while on the other hand he hardly has any contact with his boss who doesn't look like he ever wants to come back from Russia.
"Kornfein is a great person and a symbol of the club," says Waller, who worked directly under the chairman. "He has very good management skills, but Betar needs someone like Maccabi Haifa chairman Ya'acov Shachar, who has proven himself in the business sector before moving into soccer. Itzik has no experience; he works only from his heart. Fining players because they played badly has no effect; they need to work twice as hard as a 'punishment.'"
"This relationship between Kornfein and Gaydamak is untenable, but it will just carry on until Gaydamak eventually sells the club," says journalist Gilad Schubert, who covered Betar Jerusalem for Ma'ariv and the NRG Web site. "There is no real contact between the chairman and the owner. Much of the time he [Gaydamak] won't even answer the phone."
Shaked, who says Kornfein and Gaydamak are in regular contact, admits the players were not happy with the decision to impose a fine but says that Kornfein has now halved it to NIS 5,000 and "all the players agree with it."
"In any case, it will be imposed in the next salary payment, which isn't due until March 15, and everything can change by then," he adds.
While Schubert is sure Gaydamak will eventually wash his hands of Betar Jerusalem, he doesn't believe this will necessarily spell the end of the club as a significant force in Israeli soccer as many analysts have predicted.
"Gaydamak wants to leave, and whoever comes will spend much less money. But I don't think they will be forced to sell all the players. The ones with contracts, such as Tal and Gershon, will stay. Betar won't play with an entire team made up of its youth players next season. They will still be able to challenge teams like Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa," says Schubert.
Vandermolen, an English-born Jew from Southend who now lives with his wife in Ra'anana, begs to differ. "I think the biggest problem was when Gaydamak came in with the big money. It just upset everything. In a funny way, Roman Abramovich has done it to Chelsea. Money can't buy success. There's no instant coffee here," he tells In Jerusalem. "Although Gaydamak won the league, it's now ended. They will have to build from scratch again."
Luckily for Kornfein, even that isn't such a bad prospect, as there has always been an impressive youth set-up at Betar. Hundreds of youngsters spend their afternoons and evenings practicing on one of the training pitches at Betar's Bayit Vagan training ground, hoping to maybe make it to the prestigious youth team and even one day into the first team.
Perhaps looking to the future, a number of young players have already made their mark in the first team this season, with 22-year-old goalkeeper Ariel Harush taking the place of the susceptible Kale, Idan Vered scoring goals up front, and Eliran Danin finally making the left back position his own.
Combined with the resurgence of former youth team players Aviram Bruchian and Amit Ben-Shushan during Sunday's game and the striking power of Itzhaki, there is every chance that Betar might pull itself out of the current mess.
"The young players should be thankful for this situation; they are the base the next team next season will be built on," Waller says. "Betar needs new blood and new leadership. I'm sure the team can forget about Europe for the next two years, but the future is relatively bright."
"This season is over in terms of the league. The only thing that can save the season is if they win the cup," Schubert notes. "But the situation isn't that bad. Many people are blowing it out of proportion because they compare it to last year when they won the double."
What will happen next season or even next month is anyone's guess.
The only sure thing is that on Saturday Betar returns home to Teddy Stadium to take on B'nei Yehuda Tel Aviv, one of the in-form teams in the Israeli league.
A win will allow Atar to continue uninterrupted. But if the team loses, the inevitable questions about Atar and Kornfein's competence will surface once again.
"We've been through a hard week," captain Arik Benado said after the win at Kiryat Shmona. "I hope this victory will give us the momentum to drive forward."
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