Sinai Says: The man behind the plan at Maccabi Haifa

Coach Elisha Levy's calm and Yaniv Katan's leadership on the field pale in comparison to that of Haifa owner Jacob Shahar.

Allon sinai 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Allon sinai 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Maccabi Haifa may have lost on Tuesday night, but its future is looking brighter than ever. While Betar Jerusalem fans don't even know if their club will exist next season, Haifa supporters can sleep soundly with the knowledge that their team's future is in the best of hands. There are many who deserve credit for Haifa's league championship, but one name stands above all others. Coach Elisha Levy's calm and composure may have played a crucial role in the team's success, and without Yaniv Katan's leadership on the field the side would have surely struggled to win the league. However, these contributions pale in comparison to that of Haifa owner Jacob Shahar. The 68-year-old has backed the club financially since 1985 and became the first private owner in Israeli soccer in the summer of 1992 when he completed the purchase of Haifa. The millionaire businessman has since become a model owner, turning Haifa into Israel's number one club, both on and off the field. Until Shahar came along, Haifa had one championship and one State Cup to its name, but far more importantly, it struggled financially and lacked any ambition to become one of the country's top clubs. Shahar changed all that, instilling European working standards and investing heavily in youth development and training facilities, ensuring the club does well in the long run as well as the present. Over the last 10 years, Haifa's youth team has won five championships and three cups and the likes of Dekel Keinan, Biram Kiyal and Lior Rafaelov, who played a vital role in this year's accomplishments, all came through the system in recent seasons. In Shahar's 24 years at the club, the team has won 10 championships and four cups and, just as significantly, it was also at the forefront of Israeli achievements in European competitions. Haifa recorded Israel's first noteworthy accomplishment in Europe, reaching the last 16 in the Cup Winners Cup in the 1993/94 season, and was also the first to qualify for the Champions League group stage in the 2002/03 season. Since then, only Maccabi Tel Aviv has repeated that feat (2004/05), but with the changes UEFA has made to Europe's premier competition, Shahar now faces a tough decision on whether to increase the club's budget and make the most of this opportunity. Haifa will enter the Champions League in the second qualifying round next season, where it will face the champion of one of the 31 countries ranked 16 to 47 in the UEFA coefficient rankings (Israel is ranked 22nd). The victorious sides and the champions from the associations ranked 13 to 15 will play in the third qualifying round and the winners will face off for five places in the group stage. What all of this really means is that unlike previous seasons, Haifa already knows it won't have to play a team from one of Europe's top 12 leagues en route to the Champions League. Clearly, Haifa's place in the group stage is still far from guaranteed, as teams from Greece, Belgium and Scandinavia, to mention a few, will be vying with it for a group berth. Nevertheless, the change gives Haifa a much better chance than in previous seasons and as a result puts Shahar in a real dilemma. The owner is known for his frugality, refusing to enter bidding wars when the likes of Arkadi Gaydamak have entered the scene and poured money into the soccer market. If the early indications are anything to go by, he's also not planning to increase the club's budget for next season and is even considering cutting it. Only time will tell if that will indeed be the case, but if one thing is for certain, it is that Shahar will make the best decision for Haifa's future.