Local Soccer: Hap Petah Tikva - The fall of an empire

"It was a tragic season for the team and for the city," Hapoel's veteran striker Motti Kakoon tells Post.

hapoel petah tikva 298.8 (photo credit: Ze'ev Stern)
hapoel petah tikva 298.8
(photo credit: Ze'ev Stern)
Petah Tikva is a city that thrives on soccer, and until the end of the 2006/7 season boasted two teams in the top flight Israeli Premier League - Maccabi Petah Tikva and arch rival Hapoel. This all changed in May 2007. While Maccabi Petah Tikva performed solidly in last season's campaign finishing in sixth position, Hapoel ended the season last in the standings and was relegated from the top division for the first time in its history. "It was a tragic season for the team and for the city," Hapoel's veteran striker Motti Kakoon told The Jerusalem Post. "Hapoel has done a lot for Israeli soccer. It's hard to argue with the club's rich history and brilliant achievements in various competitions. But this campaign was simply catastrophic." Very few teams in the Israeli Premier League possess records similar to that of Hapoel Petah Tikva. The blues have been one of the most consistent clubs in the top flight, winning championships and State Cups. Hapoel won its first national championship in 1955. At the time the local scene was dominated by Maccabi Tel Aviv but Hapoel Petah Tikva, led by prolific marksman Nahum Stelmach, overshadowed Tel Aviv, winning a record five consecutive titles in between 1959 and 1963. After years of obscurity, the club re-emerged in the early 90s, finishing in second place in the Israeli league three times from 1989 to 1991. The blues also won the State Cup in 1992, with a young Avraham Grant on the lines and star striker Nir Levin in attack. The season marked the dawn of the Motti Kakoon era. Kakoon has been the team's leading player for the past decade, scoring no less than 139 league goals and also finishing with the golden boot in the 1996-97 season. But even the experienced striker, nicknamed "The Eagle," was unable to salvage this year's dismal domestic campaign. The fan favorite said he thinks the recent relegation must be addressed with shrewd decision-making and long-term planning. Kakoon went on to pledge his loyalty to the club and expressed his wish to come back for another season, saying he hopes to end his playing career after earning promotion to the Premier League. Petah Tikva runs a potent youth academy, which has become an example for rival teams in the league. But the management has repeatedly released promising players to other clubs, to the frustration the supporters. Many of the Premier League's top clubs are enjoying some former Petah Tikva player's services. Current champion Betar Jerusalem signed two of Petah Tikva's most promising exports last summer. Toto Tamuz and Michael Zandberg both spent their teenage years at Kibbutz Einat. Maccabi Haifa's Adoram Keisi and Hapoel Tel Aviv's Walid Badir started their playing careers in Petah Tikva. Last term Maccabi Tel Aviv enjoyed a breakout season by Yossi Shivchon, who was purchased from the blues a year ago. The yellow-and-blue also produced outstanding defensive performances thanks to Avi Yihiel, another produce of the Petah Tikva youth academy who was exiled a few years ago due to a rift with the management. Betar Tel Aviv, Hapoel Yehud and Bnei Lod were once legitimate top flight teams, but currently exist only on an amateur basis. Fans are worried that Hapoel Petah Tikva could follow suit. The "Blue Panthers," the teams leading fan-club, has officially announced a boycott until owner Ronen Elad unveils his plans for the next season. "The team will face fierce competition in the National League and returning to the top flight won't be easy," one fan commented.