A shell of past glories

The present is bleak and the future seems worse for Hapoel Tel Aviv.

Captain Shay Abutbul. (photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Captain Shay Abutbul.
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Just when they thought matters couldn’t get any worse, Hapoel Tel Aviv fans discovered that the club’s dysfunctional ownership had somehow managed to reach a new low.
Hapoel remains one of the most illustrious clubs in Israeli football. However, this upcoming season’s team is set to be a shell of the glorious sides of the past, which led Hapoel to success not that long ago.
Financial constraints mean the club can’t afford to bring in players of the standard to which its supporters have been accustomed.
As such, Hapoel used to begin every season with the clear goal of winning the Premier League championship – but not this year.
Following the departure of Omer Damari for Austria Wien earlier this week, and the possible exit of star midfielder Gili Vermut, Hapoel would likely settle for a season of mediocrity in the middle of standings, desperate to avoid the battle against relegation.
As new manager Eyal Berkovic put it last week, “I knew the club was in a bad state when I joined, but not this bad.”
Berkovic, one of Israel’s alltime greatest players, had only lasted a couple of months as the manager of Maccabi Netanya in 2006, spending recent years working in the media and running a football school in Nesher.
He must have thought to himself that the offer to run Hapoel was his chance to prove he could achieve success as big as his mouth. Yet he likely never envisioned the club would find itself in such a dire state, with no one willing to provide the crucial financial backing.
Ido Hagag was supposed to be that man, with ownership group head Haim Ramon handing the reins over to the young real-estate tycoon, after growing fed up with trying to find sponsors and a new wealthy owner who would take the club off his hands.
A rich boss is paramount to achieving success in this day and age, with two-time defending champion Maccabi Tel Aviv having the patronage of Jewish-Canadian billionaire Mitch Goldhar, Maccabi Haifa enjoying the backing of Jacob Shachar over the past three decades and Hapoel Beersheba thriving under Alona Barkat.
Hagag was never going to match their investment, but he was at least meant to ensure Hapoel would be capable of building a top team – and it was he who brought Berkovic on board with promises of a bright future.
Any such hope ended when Hagag announced last week that he had decided to withdraw his financial backing, after a group of drunk and disillusioned supporters, unhappy with his decisions, came to his home and tried to confront him. Hagag was not in the country at the time, but his wife and children were terrified by the screaming fans and left the apartment soon afterwards.
“The fans crossed a red line,” Hagag said. “After considering the matter with my family, I have decided to no longer be involved in the running of Hapoel Tel Aviv. I promise to continue to support the club.”
Due to Hagag’s departure, the club’s budget shrunk by a third.
“A small, violent and thuggish group continues to hurt the club, tarnishing its reputation,” read a club statement. “As a result, the club has failed to find a buyer and the chances of doing so in the future are only diminishing.”
Matters are so bad that some fans are beginning to miss the days when the much-maligned Eli Tabib was in control.
It seems like a long time ago now, but the takeover by Ramon and his ownership group in July 2012 was supposed to have steadied the ship following the Tabib era.
Tabib was chased out of the club by the fans, but things have scarcely improved under Ramon’s hand, if at all.
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.
Any lingering hope Hapoel had of alleviating its financial problems by succeeding in European competition were also dashed last week, after the team suffered a 3-1 aggregate defeat to Astana of Kazakhstan in the Europa League second qualifying round.
“The club is sick from a financial standpoint,” explained a despondent-looking Berkovic last week. “Heads will need to roll, the budget will need to be cut and players will have to leave. If we want the club to live, we have to take drastic measures.”
Berkovic’s ostentatious nature ensured his services were always in demand in the media during his time away from the field, but he must already be regretting some of his words.
“I came to work at Hapoel for one reason, I have had enough of talking. I have no doubt that if I will be given time and be allowed to build the team the way I want to, I will succeed,” he said when he was introduced as manager in May. “Our goal is to finish in second place and win all the derby matches.”
Damari’s transfer to Austria helped cover some of the club’s debts. Yet, at the same time, it perhaps best epitomized the disastrous way in which Hapoel is being run.
The club announced just two weeks ago that the 25-year-old striker, who scored 26 goals in the Premier League last season, had signed a new, improved contract.
But there was another twist in the plot when Hapoel notified Damari last week that his contract had been nullified, as Berkovic had not known he couldn’t change the terms of the deal without the consent of Maccabi Petah Tikva boss Amos Luzon. Petah Tikva still retained a 50-percent stake in Damari, who was sold by the club to Tel Aviv three years ago.
Nevertheless, Tel Aviv insisted last week that “players are not properties and they have their wishes, thoughts and aspirations, even if they don’t coincide with Amos Luzon’s financial interests.”
That all changed when Ramon entered the fray, and Hapoel backtracked on its announcement from the previous week.
Damari ultimately left for Europe, ensuring that at least one of the club’s problems had reached a satisfactory solution. However, that was really the least of Hapoel’s troubles.
The depressing part for fans is that not only is the present bleak, but prospects for the future actually seem worse. Hapoel supporters have already learned that anything is possible in their club – and not in a good way.