Tel Aviv's two-headed monster

You know a club is in dire straits when a player says that is needs its fans to save it from its owners.

Hapoel Tel Aviv 311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Hapoel Tel Aviv 311
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
It could have all been so different. Everything seemed to be going Hapoel Tel Aviv’s way at the start of last season.
Fresh off winning the Premier League and State Cup double in the 2009/10 campaign, Hapoel safely navigated its way through the Champions League qualifiers to advance to the group stage of continental soccer’s most prestigious competition for the first time in club history.
But just when Hapoel looked to have reached a new high in its 83-year history, everything began to unravel.
It wasn’t that the players failed to perform on the field, or that a freak twist of fate robbed them of what could have been.
It is because of the arrogance and vanity of two men who were supposed to have the club’s best interests at heart that Tel Aviv will be entering the coming season with its future shrouded in doubt.
When Eli Tabib officially bought a 50-percent stake in Hapoel to join Moni Harel as co-owner last summer, it seemed to be a match made in heaven.
Harel, a life-long fan, had been looking for several years for someone with whom to share the financial burden of running the club, while Tabib was searching for a way back into the soccer scene.
He had been involved in Israeli soccer before, owning Hapoel Kfar Saba between 1995 and 2008; and crucially, he had the capital and craving to be involved with a big club.
Thanks to Tabib’s money, Tel Aviv managed to hold onto almost all of its stars ahead of the 2010/11 season, which was paramount in the side’s progress to the Champions League.
But while Tabib’s influx of cash was helping the team to success on the field, a clash of personalities soon began to destroy the club from the inside.
Instead of working as a team, each owner pulled in a different direction, and it was only a matter of time until they tore the club apart.
There is virtually nothing the two haven’t argued about.
With each owner having to sign off on any financial transaction, the two have denied staff they deemed to belong to the “other side” their salaries; have refused to sign players they didn’t personally suggest; and have generally made the lives of their players and personnel a nightmare.
Defender Danny Bondarv, who left for Volga Nizhny Novgorod of the Russian league last month after his contract ran out at Hapoel, recently spoke about how one night, following one of the team’s road matches, he found himself all alone in the parking lot of the club’s training ground after discovering that his company car had been taken away without any notice.
Almost every Hapoel player has a similar “horror” story to tell, including Eran Zahavi, who was told to forgo 260,000 euros he says he is owed by Hapoel so the club would allow him to complete his move to Italian Serie A club Palermo, a transfer that is set to put over 1.5 million euros in Tel Aviv’s pocket.
“Both sides want to finalize the deal, but Hapoel wants me to pass on the money they owe me – which I’m not willing to do,” Zahavi said before he departed for medical tests at Palermo last week.
“I had three superb years at Hapoel, and it is a shame that I’ll be leaving on a sad note because of this issue.
“If all the players have complaints about the club, then I guess that they are not the ones to blame. If Hapoel was run like Maccabi Haifa, it would have won 10 straight championships.”
Almost all of Tel Aviv’s stars of recent seasons are desperate to flee the club they hold so close to their hearts. They are simply no longer willing to suffer its dysfunctional bosses.
In addition to Zahavi and Bondarv, Itai Shechter and Gili Vermut are set to join German club Kaiserslautern, while goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama has left for France and striker Ben Sahar will return to the continent with his loan deal ending.
As last season drew to a close and with neither owner willing to budge, it became clear to both Tabib and Harel that the club’s existence would be in danger if things didn’t change.
The two-headed monster had to be separated; but, as expected, that too has become a never-ending point of friction.
A Buy Me Buy You clause was included in the original agreement between the two owners, but neither was willing to make the initial offer.
The BMBY clause stipulates that after one side makes an offer, the other has to decide either to accept it or buy full control for the same amount.
After spreading rumors that he is looking for an honorable exit, Tabib surprised everyone when he turned down Harel’s low offer of NIS 6 million and chose instead to seize full control of the club.
That should have been the end of the story – but not with this melodrama.
Harel quickly claimed that Tabib hadn’t transferred the money to him as required, and appealed to the Tel Aviv District Court.
“I’m the owner of Hapoel Tel Aviv,” Harel declared earlier this month. “I’m doing everything I can for the good of Hapoel. What’s going on is a disgrace, including on my part.”
Tabib obviously sees things differently.
“Since I officially took control of the club, I have invested all my time and energy in preparing the team for next season. Harel’s comments are not worthy of a reaction,” he said.
In the meantime, the farce continues.
Despite announcing at the start of the month that Yossi Abuksis is to succeed Eli Gutman as coach after three seasons as his assistant, Tabib changed his mind and decided to sign Dror Kashtan, completely losing what little credibility he may still have had.
Attempts at mediating between the two owners are set to continue until next Tuesday’s court date.
Hapoel fans are just hoping for some kind of resolution one way or the other.
However, as is often the case when lawyers and judges become involved, the end seems to only move further out of sight.
In the meantime, one of Israel’s biggest clubs has a season to prepare for.
Instead of building on the financial and professional success of playing in the Champions League, the off-field distractions may well have played a key role in Tel Aviv losing its league title to Maccabi Haifa last season, and may now cost it any chance of success in 2011/12 by hindering its preparations.
“We are leaving with a bad taste in our mouths, but we had a wonderful time at Hapoel,” said Vermut ahead of his flight for Kaiserslautern with Shechter earlier this week. “We hope Hapoel will finally stop causing problems and allow us to focus on soccer.
“There are some things that are not done as they should be at Hapoel, but I don’t want to get into it. I’m sure the fans will take care of the club.”
Vermut’s last sentence said it all.
You know a club is in dire straits when a player says that it needs its fans to save it from its owners.