‘Sheriff’ back in town, working miracles with Betar

Sinai Says: Considering Betar Jerusalem’s situation a few months ago, its start is nothing short of sensational.

BETAR JERUSALEM coach Eli Cohen 370 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
BETAR JERUSALEM coach Eli Cohen 370
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
On the face of it, there is nothing extraordinary about ending the first round of Premier League matches in fifth place, nine points off the top of the table.
However, considering Betar Jerusalem’s situation just three months ago, the fact the club from the capital is dreaming about winning a championship rather than dreading demotion is nothing short of sensational.
Oscar Garcia’s Maccabi Tel Aviv may be leading the standings and Yossi Mizrahi has yet again exceeded all expectations at Ashdod SC, but there is an almost unanimous agreement among Israeli soccer fans and experts that Betar’s Eli Cohen has been the league’s outstanding coach in the first third of the season.
What makes Cohen’s return to the limelight all the more exceptional is the fact that his coaching career seemed to be over just last year.
The 62-year-old was one of Israel’s top coaches in the 1990’s, winning a championship at Betar (1996/97), a State Cup at Hapoel Tel Aviv (1999) before moving on to Maccabi Haifa.
However, he failed to complete a full season at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium, being sacked seven matches before the end of the term following a tumultuous campaign.
His time at the club is remembered more than anything else for then-Greens midfielder Yossi Benayoun refusing to leave the field of play when Cohen tried to substitute him during a cup tie against Hapoel Haifa.
Cohen spent the following season at Hapoel Petah Tikva, but in the 11 years since he only once completed a full campaign at a club.
He returned to Betar to save it from relegation in 2001/02, but left midway through the following year.
Only two teams called on Cohen at a start of a season during the past decade, with the Sheriff, a nickname he earned during his playing career at Maccabi Ramat Amidar, leaving six different sides midseason, with three of those clubs eventually being relegated from the top flight.
After winning just three of 17 matches at Hapoel Beersheba and being fired, Cohen spent almost two years away from the game before linking up with Maccabi Tel Aviv.
By signing for the yellow-and-blue Cohen joined a rarefied list of coaches to have guided each of Israel’s big four clubs. But he was sent packing just two matches into his second season at Maccabi after leading the side to third place in his debut campaign.
Cohen will want to remember little of his next two jobs, guiding Bnei Yehuda and Ironi Kiryat Shmona to a combined two wins in 24 matches between 2007 and 2009.
Cohen’s successor at Kiryat Shmona, Ran Ben-Shimon, couldn’t save it from relegation and for almost three years it seemed like local soccer had seen the last of the Sheriff.
Unlike most of his colleagues, Cohen hasn’t depended on the income from coaching for his livelihood for many years, owning several successful businesses as well as being a real-estate investor.
However, when Betar came calling in February, Cohen had few qualms.
It wasn’t that the effectively bankrupt Jerusalem had made a lucrative offer, but rather that Cohen always maintained a particularly warm spot for Betar.
When he joined Jerusalem it was just two points above the relegation zone, scoring a meager 16 goals in 25 matches.
However, he went on to guide the yellow-and-black to eight consecutive victories at one stage to comfortably secure survival.
Despite Betar’s uncertain future and the fact he didn’t officially sign a contract extension until late in the off-season, Cohen promised to remain at the club for as long as he was wanted.
Nevertheless, the financial uncertainty in the summer seriously hampered Betar’s preparations for the season, and it was hardly surprising that the team only picked up two points from its first five matches.
However, few could predict what was to unfold next.
Despite having a mostly young and inexperienced squad to work with, Cohen built a cohesive unit from the products of the Betar youth system and other clubs’ outcasts.
Betar has lost just one of its past nine encounters, drawing 1-1 with Maccabi Tel Aviv on Monday to climb up to fifth place.
“We faced an opponent which is in first place for a reason and I’m very pleased with the result despite our mediocre display,” Cohen said after Monday’s showdown at National Stadium in Ramat Gan.
“We are a work in progress with a young squad of players who are training very hard.”
The compliments are raining in again on Cohen, but having experienced a lost decade he will not be getting carried away.
Cohen’s evolving project at Betar has injected much needed life and color into a floundering league, promising news not just for Jerusalem fans but for Israeli soccer in general.
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