The Last Word: Appreciate sporting dynasties while they last

When Manchester United was at its best in the mid 1990s it wasn't exactly most people's favorite team.

MACCABI HAIFA 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
When Manchester United was at its best in the mid 1990s, storming past its opponents in the English Premier League, it wasn't exactly most people's favorite team. The more success United had, the more fans of other teams grew to hate the Red Devils, claiming referees favored manager Alex Ferguson's team at its Old Trafford home and criticizing the lack of atmosphere at the stadium. When Man U won the Premiership six times in the league's first eight years, rather than appreciate the historic period of often stunning soccer they were witnessing, fans around England would complain about the league becoming boring. This phenomenon is repeated all around the world. Football fans, generally motivated by jealousy, fail to take a step back and take in the magic of the moment, preferring to complain about the success of their rivals rather than see the greatness of the team. In Italy, Juventus is the most despised team in Serie A for its massive success; in Scotland, Celtic and Rangers are disliked by many supporters; and of course here in Israel, Maccabi Haifa's continuous success in the local league frustrated many a soccer fan. Until last season, Haifa was not just the team to beat, but far and away the best side in the country. The Greens won the league title an incredible five times between 2001 and 2006, only losing out to Maccabi Tel Aviv on goal difference in 2003, the year the team played in the Champions League group stages. The situation climaxed in 2005 when Haifa won its first 11 league games and easily took the championship, giving the rest of the teams hardly any chance. That was then. Clearly things have changed. It was one thing to watch a struggling Haifa side finish fifth in the Israel Premier League last season, but the team did well in Europe, reaching the last 16 of the UEFA Cup. This term, things have gone from bad to worse. Maccabi was knocked out of the Intertoto Cup in July before some clubs had even begun preseason training, and then lost 1-0 to newly promoted Bnei Sakhnin in its first league game at Kiryat Eliezer on Saturday. Last year it looked like a blip. Now it seems the period of Maccabi Haifa's massive dominance is over. With Roberto Colautti leaving for Germany, Yaniv Katan nowhere near as good as he once was and few quality foreigners in the squad aside from Gustavo Boccoli, it's time to look back on the success of the early 2000s and recognize it for the dynasty it was. Perhaps the tide really is changing and a new dynasty is being built. After Hapoel and Maccabi Tel Aviv looked weak in their opening games Monday evening when both teams could only draw, Betar Jerusalem is already the favorite to retain its championship and begin a new era in local soccer following a comprehensive 3-0 win. Interestingly, coach Itzhak Schum has three former Haifa players in Idan Tal, Arik Benado and Michael Zandberg as part of the backbone of his Betar team. It is a mistake to accuse Betar of buying its success. It was built as much on local youngsters such as Barak Itzhaki, Amit Ben-Shushan and Aviram Bruchian as the expensive Derek Boateng. Toto Tamuz may have cost a lot of money, but this is mainly because his agent and previous club Hapoel Petah Tikva knew Betar owner Arkadi Gaydamak had it. Of course the season is only one day old and this coming weekend Betar travels to Bloomfield to face Guy Luzon's Hapoel Tel Aviv. But while Hapoel have European competition to worry about Betar can focus on the league. For the first time in a decade there is a strongly confident atmosphere at Teddy Stadium. The team is definitely playing better soccer and looking more organized than last year, and Schum has already spoken of his aim of building a tradition at the club. Who knows how long it will last. But while it does, true soccer fans will do well to appreciate the moments of glory and history as they come.