A dynasty at Maccabi Tel Aviv?

The team’s impressive win at Bordeaux in Europa League group stage following its exit in the Champions League 3rd qualifying round gives owner Mitch Goldhar real reason for optimism.

Maccabi Tel Aviv 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Maccabi Tel Aviv 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Maccabi Tel Aviv’s start to the 2013-14 season may not be the best in Israeli football history.
However, it seems set to surely be remembered as one of the most dominant in the local Premier League.
It is not just that the reigning champion has picked up 16 of a possible 18 points, winning five of its first six matches of the campaign. Just as significant has been the fact that the yellow-and-blue has yet to concede a goal in the league this season.
Tel Aviv has gone 540 minutes without allowing a goal, and became the first Israeli team ever to win its first four games of the campaign while maintaining clean sheets.
The 0-0 draw at Ashdod Sport Club earlier this month means the team can no longer equal the record of 11 straight wins to start a season, set by Maccabi Haifa in 2005-06 and the 1993-94 Tel Aviv side.
Yet that will be of little concern to Tel Aviv, as it has succeeded in overcoming several crucial departures in the off-season.
After clinching the championship last season, the club’s first in 10 years, there was one word that kept resurfacing when jubilant Jewish-Canadian owner Mitch Goldhar shared his thoughts with the media.
“Everything is a process,” explained the 51-year-old, who has owned the club for the past four years. “This is the result of the process.”
Time and again, Goldhar emphasized the challenging process the organization had to endure before ultimately tasting glory, as well as the ongoing development at Maccabi.
To someone watching Goldhar for the first time, he seemed almost like a man obsessed.
But Goldhar has been preaching about the process since day one, and he finally held a piece of silverware in his hands to prove his vision was correct.
“I really was more concerned with how we developed as an organization and as a club,” said Goldhar. “I always felt it is a process and it still is a process. It’s not over. And if we stick to the process, we will eventually slowly emerge as a force.”
However, continuity is one of the keys to a thriving process, and despite the fact that most of last season’s squad is still at the club, there were plenty of question marks hanging over the team after Maccabi lost its coach and two of its stars during the summer.
Just days after guiding the team to the league title, Spaniard Oscar Garcia announced he was leaving, citing personal reasons. The pressure put on Garcia by his family to return to Spain following Operation Pillar of Defense is believed to have led to the decision.
Numerous names were mentioned in connection with the vacant position, but Maccabi only finally got its man more than four weeks later and less than five weeks before the start of its Champions League qualifying campaign, with Paulo Sousa being announced as the new coach.
Sousa enjoyed an illustrious playing career for Benfica, Sporting Lisbon, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan, Parma, Panathinaikos and Espanyol, winning the Champions League on two occasions. But he had experienced far less success as a coach, only spending short stints at Queens Park Rangers, Swansea City and Leicester City in the English Championship. After less than three months, he was fired from Leicester following a poor start to the season, and in May 2011 he signed with newly crowned Hungarian champion Videoton. He ended his only full season at the club in the runners-up position, before guiding the team to the Europa League group stage at the start of the 2012-2013 campaign. Four months later, in January of this year, he left the club for personal reasons.
Nevertheless, Maccabi’s sports director Jordi Cruyff insisted that Sousa was the yellow-and-blue’s first choice and that the club didn’t approach any other coach.
Cruyff looks to have gotten it right yet again, with Sousa steering the team to success despite losing two of its anchors.
Goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama was the foundation of Tel Aviv’s composed defensive play last season, but he returned to French side Lille after one season on loan to Maccabi, despite the team’s desire to retain his services.
Eliran Atar scored a league-best 22 goals last season, and despite being under contract, Maccabi never had any intention of standing in his way when French club Stade de Reims offered $1.8 million for his services.
Maccabi didn’t break the bank in its search for replacements, instead making accurate acquisitions to fill the voids.
The 35-year-old Juan Pablo Colinas was virtually unknown by Israeli soccer fans before joining Maccabi, while 29-year-old striker Barak Itzhaki was already written off by many.
Itzhaki was sent out on loan to Cypriot side Anorthosis Famagusta last season, after Maccabi deemed him to be a negative influence on the squad. But he was called back to Israel after a comeback season in Cyprus and his return to form has also been recognized by national team coach Eli Guttman, who brought him back into the fold after four years out in the cold.
With Maccabi’s main challengers, Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv, getting their campaigns off to erratic starts, there are some pundits who are claiming that the yellow-and-blue has already all but secured a second straight championship, even though there are almost seven months of matches to be played until the end of the season.
Considering the early indications, it is hard to disagree.
Yet it took Maccabi 10 years to finally lift the title again last season, despite the club having the biggest budget in the league in each of the past four seasons since Goldhar arrived.
The evolution of the club under Goldhar may have taken longer than expected, but Maccabi has finally found its way via trial and error.
The team’s impressive win at Bordeaux in the Europa League group stage following its exit in the Champions League third qualifying round also gives Goldhar real reason for optimism regarding his club’s chances of finally also making some noise on the continental scene.
Goldhar wants to build a dynasty in Tel Aviv, and in view of what we have seen in the first three months of the new season, you would be a fool to bet against him.