Seasonal greetings

Will Maccabi Haifa owner Jacob Shachar’s massive investment in next season’s line-up pay off?

Yossi Benayoun is finishing up his career in Israel. (photo credit: MACCABI HAIFA)
Yossi Benayoun is finishing up his career in Israel.
(photo credit: MACCABI HAIFA)
After two years in the shadow of Maccabi Tel Aviv, Maccabi Haifa is leaving nothing to chance.
With a new stadium, a new coach and a new star captain, Haifa has every intention of reclaiming its place atop Israeli soccer.
The Greens dominated the local Premier League in the first decade of the 21st century, winning seven championships over 11 years, including three in a row at one stage (2004-06). Haifa’s main goal in the upcoming season will be to keep Maccabi Tel Aviv from joining it as the only team in the past 50 years to claim three consecutive titles.
The early signs are encouraging, with everything seemingly in place for the club to challenge for the championship once more after finishing in a bitterly disappointing fifth place last season, a massive 31 points behind Maccabi Tel Aviv.
It was the second time in three years that the Greens could only manage fifth place, with the team finishing in second position in 2012-13 but nevertheless never coming close to competing for the title.
The last time Haifa went three consecutive years without lifting the championship shield, not to mention even battling for it, was in the 1990s.
In an effort to end the barren spell, club owner Jacob Shachar has increased the budget by NIS 15 million to NIS 65m., finally understanding that without further investment, it will be all but impossible to close the gap on the yellow-and-blue.
After sacking Reuven Atar in November 2012 (the first time Haifa fired a coach mid-season since Eli Cohen was sent packing in 2000) Shachar remained patient with Arik Benado throughout last season.
However, Benado’s contract wasn’t renewed, and Shachar followed in the footsteps of Maccabi Tel Aviv by bringing in a foreign coaching staff led by Serbian Aleksandar Stanojevic.
Shachar’s willingness to emulate what has worked for his rivals proves he is not as obstinate as he is often portrayed.
He refused to match Arkadi Gaydamak’s spending spree between 2005 and 2008, and despite seeing Beitar Jerusalem claim two straight championships (2007- 08), his instincts proved to be correct, with the oligarch quickly losing interest and leaving the club in shambles.
However, the case of Maccabi Tel Aviv owner Mitch Goldhar is completely different, with the Jewish-Canadian billionaire not only having far deeper pockets than Gaydamak, but also a far more methodical and longterm approach.
Haifa used to have a financial edge over its rivals, especially over the long run due to Shachar’s steady investment, but that hasn’t been the case for a while.
Shachar has seemingly woken up to the new reality, and his willingness to increase his funding resulted in the return of arguably the country’s greatest player ever, Yossi Benayoun.
However, it was only after a bizarre sequence of events that Benayoun ultimately agreed to a two-year deal with the club last month, less than 24 hours after both the team and the player announced that he wouldn’t be returning to the Greens.
Benayoun and Haifa released separate statements explaining that negotiations had broken down and that the 34-year-old legend would not join Haifa. Benayoun wished the team luck and wrote that he saw himself as free to join another Israeli club after first negotiating with Haifa the way he had always promised.
However, a phone conversation between Shachar and Benayoun to clear the air changed everything.
Shachar had called Benayoun to explain that there had been no intention of offending him, but their conversation broke the ice between the parties, and within hours a two-year deal – brokered by club vice president Uzi Mor and Benayoun’s agent, Avi Nimni – was announced.
Benayoun will reportedly earn around $400,000 per season and become the club’s sporting director after he retires.
Haifa will enter the new Sammy Ofer Stadium next season, and the addition of Benayoun seems to have gone a long way already toward helping fill the 30,000 seats. Around 10,000 season tickets have already been sold, with the start of the season still a month away and the team not even playing in European competitions in 2014-15.
Benayoun was a fan favorite while playing for Haifa between 1998 and 2002, leading the club to two straight championships before leaving for Racing Santander of the Spanish league. He moved on to the English Premier League and played at West Ham United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal. His last stop was at QPR, helping the London club gain promotion to the top flight two months ago.
He admitted he had never intended to end his career in Israel, but refused to promise he would lead Haifa to a title in the coming season, saying during a press conference at the new stadium that the key to success would be for the squad to remain united.
“I’m happy and excited to be here,” he said. “This is the right time for me to come back to Israel and Maccabi Haifa, which is my home. So far I have enjoyed every moment, and if we continue like this and remain united, we will succeed.”
Benayoun said he was surprised by the welcome he had received from the club’s fans, and insisted he was delighted to be finishing his career in Israel.
“I’m not going to make any brash statements, but I do promise to give my all both on and off the pitch,” he said. “I didn’t see myself returning to retire in Israel because of the experience of previous players who did so.
But I was always jealous of the players who returned to their homeland to end their careers, and now I have my chance to do so.”
He will be the team’s new captain, replacing Yaniv Katan, who announced his retirement. The 33-year-old, who played for Haifa throughout his entire career – apart from a six-month stint with West Ham United in 2006 – was hoping to continue at the club, but after understanding that he didn’t feature in the new coach’s plans for next season, he chose to hang up his boots.
“What happened in the past needs to remain in the past, and I decided I wanted to start afresh,” said Stanojevic.
“It is easy to talk about winning the championship, but we must take one step at a time.”
Besides Benayoun, Haifa has also signed Cameroonian striker Mohammadou Idrissou and Serbian goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic, who have both made a good early impression.
Haifa is still intent on adding at least one more player to ensure it has a strong enough squad to go all the way in the upcoming campaign.
After years of frustration, anything but first place will be regarded as a failure.