A bitter disappointment

Regardless of how this season ends, Hapoel Tel Aviv's 2013-14 campaign will be considered a setback.

Omer Damari scored Hapoel Tel Aviv’s second goal in its 3-1 victory over Beitar Jerusalem last night in Netanya that boosted the Reds into third place in the Premier League. (photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
Omer Damari scored Hapoel Tel Aviv’s second goal in its 3-1 victory over Beitar Jerusalem last night in Netanya that boosted the Reds into third place in the Premier League.
(photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
When Ran Ben- Shimon was announced as Hapoel Tel Aviv’s new coach last May, he knew exactly why he was brought to the club on a lucrative multiyear contract.
“Hapoel is a club which always sets out to win every title at the start of every season,” he said after signing a two-year deal.
It is safe to say that in his worst nightmares, Ben-Shimon didn’t envisage that his first year with the Reds would turn out to be such a disaster.
He always knew that Hapoel would have a tough time snatching the Premier League championship away from Maccabi Tel Aviv’s hands. But he surely never believed that after 23 matches, which account for two-thirds of the league campaign, his team would find itself closer to the relegation zone than to the defending champion in first place.
Hapoel’s troubles, however, have not been restricted to the field. In fact, the real threat to the team’s long-term future lies in the continued chaotic running of the club by the ownership group, led by former MK Haim Ramon.
T h e players were stunned to discover earlier this month that around 5 percent of their paycheck had been deducted without their knowledge, due to the club’s financial difficulties.
Ramon eventually met with the squad to explain the dire situation and the drastic measure, and the players accepted the cut – some more willingly than others.
But ownership’s conduct and the glum faces of the players as they were given the news pretty much summed up Hapoel’s season to date.
IT ALL began so promisingly, with Hapoel bringing in 12 new senior players in the off-season, including star-striker Itay Shechter, to join a squad which already included Israel internationals Gili Vermut and Omer Damari.
Shechter has since left Hapoel for French club Nantes to help cut expenses, and rumors connecting Damari to a transfer to a European club haven’t relented all season.
It was always clear that Ben-Shimon faced a challenging task trying to mold his new group of players into a winning team, but his resume seemed to attest that he was the right man for the job.
Ben-Shimon proved his pedigree by leading Ironi Kiryat Shmona to a historic championship in the 2011-12 season, before coaching AEK Larnaca of the Cypriot League last season.
However, his struggles at Hapoel have instead reminded everyone of his time at Maccabi Tel Aviv. He was fired by the yellow-and-blue just eight matches into the 2008-09 season, failing to live up to the high expectations under the intense scrutiny.
It seems all but certain that he would not currently be the Hapoel coach had the club been able to afford to fire him.
Hapoel’s failure to reach the group stage of the Europa League (continental soccer’s second most prestigious club competition) at the start of this season left a gaping hole in the club’s budget, which would have only mushroomed had it also needed to compensate Ben-Shimon for an early dismissal.
The recent cuts are supposed to save Hapoel around NIS 1 million, with Ramon doing his best to keep the club afloat in order to offload it in the summer.
“In the year and a half in which I have run Hapoel, we have had a budget of around NIS 100m., much of it raised by me,” Ramon said in his defense when announcing the recent cutbacks. “The cut was inevitable, and the players understood that as well. I will continue to do everything in my power to reduce the club’s deficit so that its financial outlook will improve, and so that there will be a strong team here next season as well.”
In a joint interview with media representatives earlier this year, Ramon claimed that should the club be unable to find a new owner, it will have to settle for mediocrity in the future. He admitted that his biggest mistakes financially were the signing of Ben-Shimon, Shechter and Vermut.
IT SEEMS like a long time ago now, but the takeover of the club by Ramon and his ownership group in July 2012 was supposed to have steadied the ship following the Eli Tabib era.
Tabib was chased out of the club by the fans, but matters have scarcely improved under Ramon’s hand.
After also being knocked out of the State Cup at the first hurdle following a stunning defeat at the hands of Hapoel Haifa, all Ben- Shimon’s team has left to play for this season is qualification for European competition.
The Reds will need to finish in third place to guarantee a Europa League berth next term, but will face a stern battle against Maccabi Haifa and Ironi Kiryat Shmona until the end of the season for the coveted ticket to Europe.
Hapoel dropped four points behind Haifa and Kiryat Shmona on Monday, losing 3-1 to the former at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium.
Hapoel’s vulnerable defense was exposed, as it was countless times this season, with the Reds conceding their 30th goal of the campaign – the sixthhighest rate among the league’s 14 teams.
“It has happened a lot this season that we have played well, but conceded goals easily,” Ben-Shimon said after the match.
“We are a good team, but we are also a vulnerable team. We are a good team that is recording poor results this season.”
Regardless of how this season ends, the 2013-14 campaign will be considered a bitter disappointment for Hapoel.
A season that promised so much deteriorated with every month, with everyone blaming everyone else for what transpired.
One or even two bad seasons are far from a tragedy even for a big club like Hapoel.
However, the real concern among the Hapoel faithful is that the past year is only the beginning of a decline that could ultimately see the club drop to depths from which it would take many years to recover.