Mac Haifa’s Atar burning through his grace period

Sinai Says: It is hard to imagine how Reuven Atar’s tenure as Maccabi Haifa coach could have gotten off to a worse start.

REUVEN ATAR 370 (photo credit: Aaf Kliger)
(photo credit: Aaf Kliger)
This wasn’t the way it was scripted.
Reuven Atar’s return to Maccabi Haifa was supposed to be the perfect start to a fairytale story.
So far, it has been nothing but a nightmare.
It is hard to imagine how the beginning to Atar’s tenure could have been any more disastrous.
Sure, Haifa could have lost all five of its matches, but the fact that the Greens have registered their worse ever start to a Premier League campaign by picking up only two points from a possible 15 was just as inconceivable only a few weeks ago.
Haifa has been the dominant force in Israeli soccer since the turn of the century, winning seven championships over the past 12 seasons, including two in the last four years under the guidance of Elisha Levy.
However, that didn’t stop the club’s fans from incessantly fantasizing about the day that Atar would return to guide his boyhood club.
The supporters were not shy about it either, voicing their wishes in an almost ungrateful manner over recent seasons despite all the team’s success.
Atar, who began his playing career in Haifa’s midfield in 1986, actually moved across town in 1994 to then nouveau-riche archrival Hapoel Haifa.
But the Green faithful couldn’t begrudge their favorite son for long.
His virtuoso performances and spell-binding talent meant all was quickly forgotten and he returned for two more stints in Green before retiring as a Maccabi Netanya player in 2003 due to injury.
Atar immediately went into coaching, initially as an assistant at Netanya, at which he was also given his first chance as a head coach in 2004.
The 43-year-old spent much of the past eight years at Netanya, while also leading Betar Jerusalem to the State Cup in 2009.
He returned to Netanya for a third tenure three years ago, and despite having only a meager budget at his disposal, guided the team to a fourth-place finish and Europa League qualification last season.
Haifa owner Jacob Shahar always insisted that Atar’s time will come and he finally granted the fans their wish ahead of this season, with his son Or playing a crucial role in the decision, using his growing influence at the club to convince his father.
Unlike in previous seasons, Shahar gave his coach complete freedom in building the squad, bringing in every player Atar requested within the club’s parameters.
Atar signed eight new senior players, with four of them coming in after the side’s unacceptable start to the season.
Two of the late arrivals are former Israel internationals Dekel Keinan and Avihai Yadin, but they have so far done little to steady the ship, with Haifa not even finding the back of the net in its past two matches.
While the Greens showed some real promise in their first two matches of the season against Maccabi Tel Aviv and Ironi Kiryat Shmona and could consider themselves slightly unlucky to lose in both, Haifa’s level of performance has nose-dived in recent weeks under mounting pressure.
The burden of expectations also seems to be getting to Atar, who looked completely distraught in his post-match TV interview following Saturday’s 0-0 draw at Hapoel Acre, an interview he only agreed to give after being told that the club would be fined if he didn’t.
Looking at Atar’s face on Saturday it seemed that the crisis in Haifa was about to reach boiling point.
However, fortunately for the coach and the club, Shahar quickly squashed any notion that Atar might be sacked, laughing off the suggestion and promising that he will keep his job at least until the end of the season.
Shahar’s words and track record should reassure Atar, with the boss not firing a coach midseason since Eli Cohen was sent packing in 2000.
There is of course always the danger that the situation could spiral out of control to such an extent that Atar will feel that the only way for Haifa to salvage something from this season would be if he left.
However, Haifa has an ideal opportunity to kick start its campaign when it hosts newly-promoted Hapoel Ramat Gan on Saturday ahead of an international break, which will be followed by a trip to Hapoel Tel Aviv.
Shahar made a surprise visit to the team’s training session on Tuesday to provide some words of encouragement, promising the squad that he still believes in them and in the coaching staff.
And it is not just Shahar who is giving his full backing to the coach.
Atar’s unique status at the club can also be seen in the fact that the fans are remaining supportive rather than deriding the players and demanding accountability from the coach after having their expectations crushed.
Atar became such a fan-favorite due to his ability to create something out of nothing on the pitch, coming up with a piece of magic when all else seemed lost.
Haifa could sure use him on the field at the moment, but it is Atar’s coaching skills that will come under the sternest of tests in the coming weeks as he attempts to transform a shambolic situation into an unlikely success story.