Sinai Says: Ashdod’s blueprint for soccer success

In a league where the vast majority of the clubs stagger from crisis to crisis, Ashdod has once again proven the basic soccer truth.

Ashdod SC has not won a single title in its brief 10-year history and that will likely still be the case when the season draws to a close next month. However, even if Ashdod ends its campaign empty handed, it has achieved something far more significant than trophies in the past eight months.
In a league where the vast majority of the clubs stagger from crisis to crisis, Ashdod has once again proven the basic soccer truth that success on the field can be achieved not just via outlandish spending, but also through the nurturing of home-grown talent.
Ashdod owner Jacky Ben-Zaken tried buying his way to victories in previous years, but after becoming disillusioned with seeing his expensive players underperform, he decided this past summer to put his faith in the products of the club’s youth department, for better or for worse.
The team’s performance in recent months under Yossi Mizrahi, who has been at the helm for the past two years and receives more support from his owner than almost any other coach in the league, has well exceeded Ben-Zaken’s expectations.
Ashdod has already secured a top-six finish by reaching the Premier League championship playoffs while also advancing to the semifinals of the State Cup where it will face Bnei Yehuda in two weeks time.
“When you take into consideration our expectations, combined with our budget and the amount of home players we have used, there is no doubt that this has been a dream season,” Ben-Zaken said in a recent interview.
The future didn’t always look so bright for Ashdod.
The club was founded only a decade ago when Ironi Ashdod and Hapoel Ashdod merged under much scrutiny and criticism from fans of the two teams, who had hoped their clubs would continue to exist independently even though such a scenario was no longer financially viable.
A dwindling fan base convinced Ben-Zaken to spend heavily ahead of the 2003/04 season, bringing in veteran stars of the likes of Yossi Abuksis and Haim Revivo, a good friend of Ben-Zaken and currently a part-owner of the club.
However, the season didn’t unfold the way Ben-Zaken had hoped and the team only barely avoided relegation.
The subsequent seasons were even less inspiring and the owner decided it was a time for a change ahead of the current campaign. He may have had his sights set on long-term targets, but he has been rewarded with results after just a single season.
Ashdod’s lineup in the 3-1 defeat to Maccabi Haifa on Saturday was indicative of the rosters picked by Mizrahi throughout the season, with eight of the side’s starters learning their trade at the club’s youth team.
This trend is only set to strengthen in the coming seasons, with Ben-Zaken choosing to funnel funds into the club’s infrastructure, building new training grounds as well as a youth academy, instead of splashing out on costly recruits.
He also decided that the senior players will spend their entire day atthe club’s premises, training twice a day and resting and eating at theclub, an uncommon practice in Israeli soccer.
“I can spend NIS 50 million on the squad and challenge for thechampionship, but I don’t see the point,” Ben-Zaken said. “If I do thatI will be on top for a year or two and then I’ll be history. We’ve seenthis happen with other owners in Israeli soccer.
“We are only at the beginning of the process, but we can already see weare on the right course.” There will undoubtedly be some setbacks inthe coming seasons, but as long as Ashdod and Ben-Zaken maintain theircurrent approach, a first title in club history will arrive soonerrather than later.
Even more importantly, success for Ashdod can pave the way for thecountry’s other small and mediocre clubs to follow the blueprint,ensuring a better future for Ben-Zaken’s team as well as Israeli socceras a whole.