Set to merge?

With Hapoel Jerusalem one point away from winning its league and Hapoel Katamon wallowing, the fate of both teams is uncertain.

In November the newly formed soccer club Hapoel Katamon was at the top of Liga Aleph, the fourth division of Israeli soccer. Heading for promotion, it appeared the Jerusalem team was going to stay true to the promise of its founder Uri Sheradsky and become the new Hapoel Jerusalem. Sheradsky had set up the soccer club in the summer of 2007 by garnering donations from fans of Hapoel Jerusalem, a once huge club that was wallowing in the country's third tier of soccer. Katamon took on the insignia of Hapoel - the hammer and sickle - and the name of the site of their old stadium. Sheradsky offered an approach to owning a soccer club modeled on that of Spanish giants Barcelona FC in which fans owned a stake in the club. The club also became engaged in social welfare activities such as inviting refugees from Darfur to watch games. Meanwhile, the original Hapoel Jerusalem was on the brink of collapse. Struggling in the Liga Artzit, a division above Hapoel Katamon, the one-time State Cup champion was failing to attract more than a few hundred fans to its games. The fans nonetheless managed to make their voices heard, whistling at the club's owners, Victor Yona and Yossi Sassi, who had saddled one of Israel's most historic clubs with millions of shekels of debt. But five months later, as the end of the soccer season approaches, the outlook is somewhat different. Hapoel Katamon's season has lost momentum as its manager's defensive approach to the game has failed to take advantage of the atmosphere created by its large support at Teddy Stadium. The club now has no chance of finishing first and securing the division's only promotion slot to the league above. More surprisingly, Hapoel Jerusalem is one point away from winning its league's title, after vastly improving its form in the second half of the season. Suddenly, it is possible that Hapoel Katamon will merge with the old Hapoel, and a brief stint in which fan power heralded a new type of team ownership in Israel could be at an end. According to Tal Shorer, the head sports reporter for Army Radio, Hapoel Jerusalem has a new management that is trying to make Hapoel Katamon buy out Yona, one of the two warring owners. But Shorer, a lifelong Hapoel Jerusalem fan who now also attends Hapoel Katamon games, goes on to say that this would be a deal fraught with problems, not the least overcoming the animosity between the opposing fans. "Hapoel Jerusalem's fans hate Katamon's fans because they see them as traitors," says Shorer. "Hapoel Katamon's fans don't want to reunite because they don't want to be seen to have lost the fight." The financial side is at least as intractable. The moot deal would leave Sassi, the club's other owner, with a large stake in the club. Sassi's management of the club has improved somewhat since Yona agreed to step aside earlier in the season. He has received money from the state-backed gambling organization and league sponsor Toto for the first time in three years. This is money which all the league clubs in the country receive yet which Yona and Sassi had previously blocked from reaching Hapoel as they accused one another in court of corruption and mismanagement. But Shorer is sceptical that Sassi has genuinely changed his approach to investing in the club. "Knowing the relationship [between Sassi and Yona], you can understand if history tells us that Yossi Sassi does not really want Hapoel Jerusalem to do well, all he wants is to get Victor Yona out of the club," he says. The large fee Yona is allegedly demanding for his stake in the club, NIS 2.5 million to write off the debts he owes to ex-players and businesses once affiliated with the club, plus another NIS 1m. for himself, is another stumbling block. The matter is further complicated by the fact that it is unclear just to what buying Yona's shares in the club would entitle a new owner. "The main problem is that nobody really knows who owns the team," says Shorer. "This is because there are two agreements which the owners claim to have made. One says that Yona has 50 percent of the team and the rights to manage the club. The other says that if one owner levels the accounts then he gets the rights to the whole team. This dispute is still in court." Meanwhile Sharadsky and Sassi are miles apart in their vision of any future deal. Sassi told In Jerusalem that the owners of Hapoel Mevaseret, the Liga Aleph team Katamon bought out last summer, would be delighted to unite with him, and that they would accept keeping him as the general manager. But when Sheradsky heard this he said: "You must be kidding! If he wants to be an owner with a 2% stake and no influence, we don't mind for him to save his position," saying that what Katamon was offering was a take-over, not a union. But he pointed out that such talk was purely hypothetical anyway. "Nothing has really changed; it is the same owners and the same problems. Yona is not out, he is not even thinking about leaving." So in all likelihood, a merger is some way off yet. But if Hapoel Jerusalem continues to improve, questions will arise about the durability of the Hapoel Katamon project. Attendance at matches has begun to fall recently. The figure of a little over 1,000 against Ramle last weekend is way down from the 3,000 or more fans that were turning up earlier in the season. There could also be a costly severance deal with manager Mior Ben-Shimon in the offing. He has been criticized for failing to adapt to the physical nature of fourth division soccer, but canceling his contract could cost in the region of NIS 150,000, a huge fee for such a small club. Sheradsky would only say that the club was "undecided" on his future. Shorer points out, though, that Hapoel Katamon is still attracting triple the fans that Hapoel Jerusalem gets, which is little over 300. He adds that they are staying true to their founding principles by helping children from impoverished backgrounds to learn how to read English and use computers. A soccer competition they held last week, he says, attracted over 300 participants and showed Katamon's commitment to a strong connection with soccer on a grassroots level.