From promise to humiliation

This season has brought Maccabi Haifa to its knees.

Arik Benado (photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Arik Benado
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Maccabi Haifa’s disastrous season is perhaps best epitomized by the tragic figure of coach Arik Benado.
The 40-year-old began the campaign as one of the country’s top young prospects but will end it with his future shrouded in doubt, not knowing where he will be coaching next season and if he will ever be handed another chance to guide a big club.
Haifa was considered Maccabi Tel Aviv’s main challenger for the Premier League title at the start of the season after finishing as runner-up to the yellowand- blue in 2012/13. The Greens ended last term on a promising high, guided by the stylish Benado.
Haifa got last season off to a dismal start under the guidance of fan-favorite Reuven Atar. Despite being handed a three-year contract to coach his boyhood soccer club, Atar lasted just three months, collapsing under the weight of expectations. He was fired after the team had picked up just seven points from its first nine matches, losing in four of them.
F o l l o w i n g Atar’s sacking, club owner Jacob Shachar elected to promote from within – arguably for financial reasons – and named Benado the boss of the senior side after he had spent only a couple of months as the coach of the club’s youth team.
Benado’s appointment seemed initially like a genius decision.
Haifa lost just three of the campaign’s remaining 26 league matches under his charge, ending the season in second place behind the rampant yellow-and-blue.
Everything seemed to be in place for Haifa to contend for the Premier League title once more this term, but its challenge yet again unraveled just two months into the campaign.
Haifa began the season with a promising 3-1 win over Ironi Kiryat Shmona, which came on the back of five victories in six matches in Europa League qualification.
However, it went on to win just one of its next six matches in league action, suffering humbling 1-0 defeats to Hapoel Haifa and Hapoel Ra’anana.
Haifa registered just one shot on target throughout the entire match against Ra’anana and failed to find the back of the net for the fifth time in its first eight league encounters of 2013/14.
Benado’s men failed to score in only four of their 23 games since, but their poor defensive play means they enter the final stretch of the season with no more than fourth place to play for.
Haifa had lost all hope of challenging Tel Aviv for the championship back in November, and following four consecutive defeats in recent weeks, its longest losing streak since 1974, it is set also to fall short of a second- or thirdplace finish and qualification for the Europa League for next season.
Despite snapping its losing streak with a 2-1 victory over Hapoel Beersheba last weekend, Haifa still trails thirdplace Ironi Kiryat Shmona by eight points with five more matches to play.
Haifa’s only chance of salvaging something from this season rests on Kiryat Shmona finishing in third and beating Maccabi Netanya in the State Cup final, which would mean that fourth place would also be sufficient to qualify for European competition.
However, ending the campaign in fourth is also far from a given, with Haifa currently in fifth position, one point back of Hapoel Tel Aviv.
“Considering how we played in recent weeks, there was no point in talking about qualifying for Europe, but as long as we are close we will give our all,” said Benado after last Saturday’s victory over Beersheba. “We suffered from a mental crisis and experienced several falls. However, we seem to be regaining our strength and played better against Beersheba. I hope we have a few more pleasant moments this season.”
Haifa, which was knocked out at the first hurdle of the State Cup in January for the first time since 1965, was the dominant force in Israeli soccer between 2000 and 2011, winning seven championships in 11 seasons. However, for the past three seasons the club has fallen well short of expectations, capitulating early in the campaign and not coming close to recording significant success due to its nightmare start to the season.
After sacking Atar last season – the first time Haifa fired a coach mid-season since Eli Cohen was sent packing in 2000 – Shachar remained patient with Benado.
However, while no official announcement has been made yet, Benado will not be back at the club next season.
Shachar is rumored to be interested in bringing in a foreign coach, following in the footsteps of Maccabi Tel Aviv, which has been the best team in the country by far over the past two seasons under the guidance of Spanish and Portuguese coaches.
The owner’s willingness to learn from his rivals is a positive sign for the Haifa fans, but he and those running the club are deceiving themselves if they think that will be sufficient to regain their former supremacy.
Shachar 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 his club in shambles.
However, the case of Maccabi Tel Aviv owner Mitch Goldhar is completely different, with the Jewish-Canadian billionaire having not only far deeper pockets than Gaydamak, but also a far more methodical and long-term 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.
While it probably has the best facilities in the country and a successful youth team, homegrown talent has struggled to find its way to the lineup for several years.
The club will enter the new spectacular Sammy Ofer Stadium next season, but the 30,000-seat arena may be half-empty for many of the team’s matches should Haifa once more fail to compete with the league’s best.
Assuming Shachar has no intention of surpassing or even equaling the budget of Maccabi Tel Aviv, Haifa needs to find another course of action that will help it close the financial gap.
Replacing coaches on a yearly basis will not do the trick.
Haifa needs to wake up to the new reality and adjust to it as soon as possible. Otherwise, the nightmare will just continue to repeat itself.