Hero’s welcome for Hapoel Tel Aviv

20,000 celebrate league and cup double as Reds begin to look to the future.

Hapoel Tel Aviv celebrate 311 (photo credit: Nir Keidar)
Hapoel Tel Aviv celebrate 311
(photo credit: Nir Keidar)
Hapoel Tel Aviv celebrated its Premier League and State Cup double with over 20,000 of its fans at Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv on Sunday night, but the club’s management has already turned its attention to preparing for next season and the ultimate goal – an historic qualification to the Champions League group stage.
Hapoel, which has never reached the group stage of club soccer’s most prestigious competition, completed a remarkable campaign on Saturday night, claiming the league title, four days after lifting the cup, thanks to Eran Zehavi’s stoppage time winner in a 2-1 victory over Betar Jerusalem at Teddy Stadium.
Maccabi Haifa was a firm favorite to clinch its second straight championship, but the Greens were held to a surprise 1-1 draw by Bnei Yehuda, allowing Tel Aviv to leapfrog into first position in the dying moments of the season due to a better goal difference.
“This was a perfect season that will never return,” said Hapoel playmaker and the undoubted player of the season, Gili Vermut.
“It will take a while for this to sink in. We always believed we could do it. This has been a magical season. We finished first in our Europa League group, we won the championship, took the cup, and scored so many goals along the way. It was simply a perfect season with a perfect ending.”
Vermut is among several Hapoel players who have yet to commit their future to the club, leaving Tel Aviv owners Moni Harel and Eli Tabib with plenty of work to do to assemble a strong enough squad to reach the group stage of the money-spinning Champions League.
Harel and Tabib are planning to increase the team’s budget by some NIS 10 million ahead of next season, which is not surprising when considering Hapoel is set to have a relatively easier route to the group stage.
Tel Aviv’s successes in Europe in recent years mean it will be seeded throughout the qualifying rounds, starting with the second round, which will begin on July 13/14.
Hapoel should not have any problems in the second qualifying round, where it will face the champions of such countries as Luxembourg or Wales.
In the next round, Tel Aviv may encounter a much tougher challenge against the Cypriot or Polish champions, and should it get to the final play-off round, it could meet the Serbian or Austrian title holders.
However, by being seeded, Eli Gutman’s team will avoid what could have been a far more testing road, giving the club’s management plenty of incentive to invest heavily in the squad.
The first player they will be aiming to keep at the club is Vemut. Several teams from Spain’s La Liga are rumored to be interested in his services, but now that Tel Aviv has a real chance of playing in the Champions League, Vermut is reconsidering his options.
“Winning the championship undoubtedly makes the decision regarding my future much tougher,” he said. “At the moment, I’m considering all the options and it will be a very difficult decision.”
One player who is all but certain to leave is defensive rock Douglas da Silva. The Brazilian, who has played in Israel since 2004, is close to completing a move to French club Lille and it seems that even the prospect of Champions League soccer will not keep him at Hapoel.
Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama is also hoping for a move to the continent, but much will depend on his performance at this summer’s World Cup.
Top-scorer Itai Shechter is set to remain despite interest from abroad, as is new hero Zehavi and midfielder Avihai Yadin.
Jewish-Dutch midfielder Daniel de Ridder and striker Bojan Vrucina  seem destined to leave, but for the next few days Gutman just wants to focus on celebrating Hapoel’s first league title since 2000 and a third double in club history.
“This is the greatest moment of my life,” Gutman said. “We’ve done something amazing and we want to enjoy this double. As far as I’m concerned everyone should stay for next season.”