A sabra Down Under

Miron Bleiberg is becoming well-known for his big mouth.

bleiberg 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
bleiberg 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
Miron Bleiberg is becoming well-known for his big mouth. The Israeli head coach of the Queensland Roar, of the Australian A-League, Bleiberg has brought the outspoken demeanor Israelis are famous for to the playing field down under. With his frank and forthright ways, Bleiberg has brought a freshness to the Australian scene with his penchant for not being backward in coming forward. "He is a character and is good for journalists with his quotes. He always has plenty to say and commands plenty of column inches," says Amy Harris, soccer writer for the local Courier Mail. "That's the Israeli in me. I say what I think and am direct to the point. That's just the way I am and I don't intend to change," Bleiberg explains to The Jerusalem Post. But how exactly did an Israeli wind up coaching in an elite sporting competition on the other side of the world? "I got married and came to Australia with my wife Shlomit via a Zim line ship of which my father was the captain. What started off as a honeymoon and backpacking trip ended up lasting 22 years, and is still going." Bleiberg stumbled onto the youth team coaching position at the Melbourne Knights. Five weeks later, when the senior coach still hadn't arrived, Bleiberg was promoted to the top job. He hasn't looked back. "The coach eventually arrived, but they found out that I could do a better job." Bleiberg went back to Israel, picked up his work permit from the Australian embassy, returned to Australia and was on his way. In the early days, Bleiberg didn't have the grasp of English that he has now. "My English wasn't so good and I spoke with an accent. The problem, though, wasn't that. It was the Scottish and Irish players whom I couldn't understand." After two years at the Melbourne Knights in the now-defunct National Soccer League competition, Bleiberg coached in the Victorian state league for two years before another two years in the NSL with Heidleberg. In 1991, he moved up north to Brisbane to take up a position with Brisbane United, and has been in Brisbane ever since with a variety of teams. In that time he has won an outstanding six premierships. So when the Australian soccer landscape was being reshaped and franchises were being handed out for the A-League, it was only natural that Brisbane would receive one. In turn, Bleiberg was the natural choice for the job. His years in the coaching backwaters were rewarded with one of the plum positions in Australian soccer. When you consider that fellow coaches include German World Cup winner Pierre Littbarski and former Liverpool and England champion Steve McMahon, it is heady company indeed. Not only has Bleiberg not been intimidated by his fellow coaches, he has more than held his own. CEO of the Roar, Lawrence Oudendyk, also feels so. "Miron is positive for the game in what is not a dominant sport up here. We are up against the others (Rugby Union, Rugby League and Australian soccer) and fight for story and media attention - which Miron provides us. Miron is a colorful character, likes his comments and is a bit unusual amongst coaches who are mostly English and Scottish. He has been working hard with the young team and even though it is still early days, the results thus far have been promising." One person who agrees with that is Michael Cockerill, who writes for the Sydney Morning Herald and is the foremost soccer journalist in Australia. "Miron would be the Jose Mourinho of Australian soccer with his outspoken and bold ways, his aggressive tactics, his confident and salesman-like nature. In a new competition he has been a breath of fresh air," Cockerill told the Post. Bleiberg doesn't disagree with the comparison. "I have been compared to Mourinho due to my originality, the chutzpah I bring with me and the fact that I am not boring or straightforward." His silvery hair and good looks are also consistent with the Mourinho comparison. The A-League is definitely the big time as soccer in Australia experiences a major face-lift. "The A-league is very successful. We were semi-professional and now we are fully professional with medical staff, assistant coaches and the like. The facilities and stadiums are first class. With only eight teams, there is more media attention and there are even live telecasts. The crowds are fantastic. We average around 17,000 a game, which is pretty good," Bleiberg says. Currently the Roar are sitting in the seventh spot, but are only four points away from the play-offs. "They play a brand of soccer where attack is the best form of defense," Cockerill explained. "They are a mobile, quick, young team, but youth doesn't have consistency. They will bear fruit though." Similar to how Bleiberg blossomed. He grew up in Haifa and attended the prestigious and well-known Reali school. Playing for Maccabi Haifa in their youth team, he was surrounded by too many other good players on the team to pursue it seriously. After serving as an officer in the navy, Bleiberg studied commerce at Haifa University and did a coaching course at Wingate. "With my academic background, I was a good coach, and even coached the coaches." Bleiberg likes to shoot from the lip, as does his team. Boasting a quick, skilled and speedy outfit, their manner of play matches that of their coach: unpredictable, charismatic and magnetic to watch. For management style, Bleiberg looks to the Israeli army for inspiration. "I am like them: straightforward and confident. I am not afraid and have nothing to hide. What you see is what you get." Like the officer of the unit, Bleiberg lets his players know who is in control. "I am the captain and the leader of the ship. There is no democracy - it is a dictatorship and I am the boss. There can be a laugh and a joke but I have the last say. We can be friends but I also keep my distance. Give them a finger and they'll take the whole hand." THE CELEBRITY that Bleiberg has cultivated for himself gets noticed in public. "My face is on the news and on television and I get recognized. I always get asked for autographs. Australians are big on autographs." What about the differences between Israeli and Australian soccer? "The first thing that I noticed was that there were no fences and no one standing on them shaking them. There is far less abuse, and after the match, regardless of how tough it was, everyone shakes hands." Bleiberg used to come back to Israel every year, but since both of his parents passed away, that's been reduced to every two or three years. "I still have a sister, who is six years older than me, who lives in Givatayim. Yes, I miss my family, friends and food." What about going back to Israel to coach? "I would only do that if I was still hungry. It wouldn't be for a living but more a curiosity factor. Also it would only be to a big club that was organized, had the backing and had great facilities. Why would I want to go backwards?" But ultimately, it all depends on timing and being in the right place at the right time. "Now is a fantastic time for Australian soccer, with Australia qualifying for the World Cup and the World Club championships happening soon. If the Australian teams do well there, it will only increase the respect for Australian soccer." In any event, Bleiberg loves Brisbane. "Brisbane is very similar to Haifa... being near the beaches reminds me of Haifa." Brisbane has been somewhat unlucky, however. It has lost five points due to goals scored against it in the 89th minute and has suffered some key injuries. "In the previous Brisbane Premier League we were the biggest club with the best resources, but now we are one of the smaller clubs and a young team at that. We just have to keep playing the good and attractive soccer we are capable of producing and things will turn our way," Bleiberg says. WHEN NOT immersed in coaching duties, Bleiberg likes to get away from it all by playing tennis, and he's also a news and current affairs junkie. He likes to keep abreast of what is happening in Israeli soccer, courtesy of members of the large ex-pat Israeli communities living in Sydney and Melbourne. "Whenever I meet another Israeli it would be the first thing we talk about." Bleiberg likes the spotlight, especially when it comes to press conferences. With the gift of the gab, he is very confident, and the one-liners simply ooze out of him. But Bleiberg isn't just about the media-bite, he is also a student of the game, with an appreciation and understanding for the complex, technical side of it. "There is a lot of admiration for him as a coach - he is a deep thinker, challenges players and is good for the game," Cockerill said. But if he ever decides to hang up the whistle and the clipboard, Bleiberg could have a job waiting for him in commentating. "I think I would make a great commentator. Not one who says sensational things but rather more constructive." Speaking of things constructive, if given the chance, how would Bleiberg go about fixing soccer in this country? "Israel is going through a similar thing to what Australia was before the advent of the A-League. There were 14 teams - two of which were solvent and 12 insolvent. It was unorganized and suffered from bad administration. Now there are eight strong teams. Every match is big and each team has great facilities." What about an Israeli player playing in the A-League? "I don't have my eyes on any at the moment, but the attitudes of the Australian players are more serious than that of the Israeli players." And he doesn't stop there. "There is also the culture and mentality, which is hard to change. People have to begin to appreciate each other. Less abuse and more saying please and thank-you." He really has been away for a long time.