In the Land of Caanen

Dutch coach has brought a much higher degree of professionalism to Betar Jerusalem's training.

tom caanen 88 (photo credit: )
tom caanen 88
(photo credit: )
Just two months ago, few Israelis had heard of Ton Caanen. After completing his FIFA coaching badges, the well-dressed Dutch soccer coach had spent the summer discussing job opportunities with player agent Dimitri Siluk, and had never even stepped foot in Ben-Gurion Airport. That was August. By December it's a different story. Since being appointed as head coach of Betar Jerusalem in October, Caanen has become much more than a minor celebrity in the holy city. Everywhere he goes he is mobbed by fanatic supporters of the soccer team, eager to catch a few words with the man who has brought success back to the capital. As he sits down in the plush surroundings of the David Citadel Hotel, where he has been living for the last month since taking up the full-time position at Betar, Caanen talks about the pleasure and satisfaction he is getting from working at the club. Since he teamed up with assistant coach Guy Azuri, Betar has won six of its last seven games, including a 3-2 victory over arch rivals Maccabi Tel Aviv on Sunday night, making him an instant favorite with the supporters who had been frustrated with the team's lack of success in recent years. "I enjoy all the attention," Caanen says. "I think every human likes it when people like him as a person, and it is even better when they like you because they are happy with the work you do and you give them joy. I always say that when I am satisfied with the work I do, then I feel good. I work very hard and professionally. I help the people and give them pleasure and also they give me pleasure." Caanen has clearly connected with the Betar supporters who sing his name before, during and after each game. "I think the Israeli people are very intelligent," he says. "They see what I try to do, together with Guy Azuri, and I think I have touched the right chord with people with the way I work. I don't make a show. I am Ton Caanen. The people who see me on TV speaking and working - that's Ton, not an act, that's me." Caanen grew up in the town of Geleen, near Maastricht, in the south of Holland. Despite being offered a partnership in his father's steel factory, his first love and passion was soccer. He attempted to forge a playing career, but after realizing he would be unable to make it as a player, he began coaching at the young age of 31. Caanen quickly moved up the ranks in Holland. Two years after learning the ropes coaching amateur teams, he moved to top Dutch club Roda JC, where he worked as youth team coach and then as coach of the second team. When he was offered the job as first team coach, he turned it down in favor of taking a similar job at Ukrainian side Metalurg Donetsk, where he spent two years at the helm of one of the best sides in the country. The 39-year-old, a relative unknown in footballing circles, came to Jerusalem in October on the recommendation of Siluk, a friend of Gaydamak. The Betar owner had asked Siluk to carry out an analysis of the club he had just bought. Caanen spent two weeks in Israel watching the team and analyzing the players before sitting down with Siluk and producing a dossier advising Gaydamak on how the club could be improved. The Dutchman is very clear about why he came to Jerusalem. "From the summer, I started to look at where I wanted to work and this was one of the opportunities. After I was here one week and made an analysis of the club, I became very interested about this country, about the club and about the players." Gaydamak was so impressed with the professionalism of the dossier, which included proposals for a new training complex complete with rest rooms, a restaurant and a state-of-the-art gym, that he offered Caanen the job of head coach. After a short time in Israel, Caanen says he is settling in well and beginning to enjoy Israeli life. His visit to Israel in October was his first time here. And despite language difficulties, he has warmed to the Israeli people, and especially to the passionate Betar fans. "I feel very comfortable because the people are very warm, the fans are so gentle, so warm to me. They close their arms around me and I feel very comfortable with it," he says. "Jerusalem is a beautiful place, it is clean, people are polite to me, and the Old City is very beautiful and interesting. I've not had time to tour around the country. I've only seen Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where we have played and where Guy Azuri lives." In the few weeks he has spent in Israel he has already started to understand the Israeli mentality. "I've seen that the people here are very emotional. They speak from the heart and then the mind. And I can see a lot of people don't have patience. You can see it in the traffic - when the light goes green the cars move off very quickly. Or when you wait in a line to see a movie everyone rushes to the ticket office." But these cultural differences have not put Caanen off, and he has already looked into learning Hebrew and renting an apartment in the exclusive David's Village. If all goes well, his wife Priscilla is planning to move to live with him in Israel in January. Caanen comes across as a calm man, and even the constant rumors that he would soon be leaving the club fail to ruffle his feathers. Three weeks ago, Gaydamak brought former French international Luis Fernandez to Jerusalem to take up the newly created post of general manager. Media reports in the Israeli papers and sports websites have been full of reports of a rift between Caanen and Fernandez. Caanen is clearly media-savvy, and for the umpteenth time, dismisses the newspaper reports. "I'm not upset about reports in press creating problems. I'm only upset for the fans because they want some quiet and the people in the club want some quiet. The media make the fans nervous, and I have no problems with Luis Fernandez. The time is too short, we have just started." The coach also speaks candidly about his relationship with Gaydamak. "As a man he is busy. Of course he is not always here. But he shows interest. He calls every day to ask how things are - do I need something, when is the next game, am I prepared. I can speak to him like how you need to speak at work. Of course I have respect for him, we speak normally and openly." Gaydamak has repeatedly said that he decided to purchase Betar with the aim of transforming it into a club challenging the top teams in Europe. Caanen is part of that strategy and says he has a three-year plan to catapult Betar into the higher echelons of European soccer. Caanen's plans for Betar go further than any fan could have imagined. In the summer, the supporters were looking forward to another season with the club led by Eli Ohana. Ohana may have been one of the greatest players in the team's history, but his management skills were often criticized, not least by Gaydamak himself, whose comments about Ohana's lack of leadership qualities led the coach to quit after just the first game of the season. Israeli assistant coach Azuri took over for a difficult six-week period before Caanen arrived as a breath of fresh air. He has immediately brought a much higher degree of professionalism to the training and instilled a professional attitude in the players. Caanen's face lights up as he speaks about how he has created a new awareness in the team. "I had to change something in their minds. To ask them - do you want to just play nice football and be in the first four, five or six ranking in Israel, or do you want to really be a professional who lives as a professional footballer from Monday until Sunday without a coach who is a police officer. "Each player must know by himself what is needed to be a professional, because only when he believes and does it by himself can he make the next step. Of course it was a revolution for them. They said that to me. They said we have to think more now." Although rumors abound that Gaydamak will spend massive amounts of money in the January transfer window to bring big-name players to the club, Caanen is adamant the team will be built around the men who already play at Betar. Caanen says: "I think each line - defense, midfield and attack - needs a player in the future who already has a good European level and brings some excellence to the team and makes the other players from Betar better, because when you play with good players you play better." Caanen's plans for the club are clear. "I think within two years Betar will be champions of Israel and within three, regularly in the UEFA Cup," he predicts. He says the combination of the club's strong fan-base, his plans for an overhaul of the facilities and training, and Gaydamak's money will bring regular European football to Jerusalem. Already he has begun to achieve what many predicted he would be unable to do. Betar is unlikely to catch Maccabi Haifa, which has opened up a massive lead at the top of the Israeli premier league. But the team from Jerusalem is already sitting pretty in third place, with only goal difference separating it from the second position. And with Caanen's help, a bright future lies ahead for the yellow and black.