The Last Word: Back with a bang

This season's battle for the soccer championship could be one of the most exciting in many years.

jeremy last better pic (photo credit: Courtesy)
jeremy last better pic
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Fans of Israeli soccer had every right to be a tad apprehensive ahead of the start of the local season last weekend. IFA Chairman Avi Luzon and his crew tampered so much with the system that it barely resembled its previous incarnation - not only did the number of teams explode from 12 to 16 in one short summer, but the strange plan to split the league into three and halve each club's points total after 30 games didn't sit right with many of those involved in the game. Israel is a small country with a very limited support and financial base for professional sports, so there was every right for supporters to be concerned that the six teams promoted from the national league would more than struggle. And it hardly seemed fair to give the team that comes seventh no chance of making it into Europe with five games left. However, despite debate over the viability of the changes, there was still massive anticipation as the long summer finally came to an end on Saturday. And the return of Israeli soccer may just have proved Luzon's expansion plans correct. Sure, there are always going to be some run-of-the-mill, less interesting fixtures like Ahi Nazareth's 2-1 defeat to Hapoel Petah Tikva. But the way that newly promoted Hapoel Acre nearly managed to hold the mighty Maccabi Haifa to a 1-1 draw at Kiryat Eliezer, only losing to a last-minute Shlomi Arbeitman goal, was the tip of the iceberg in what was a fascinating first round. Just maybe the influx of new blood in Israel's top flight may inject a level of spice rather than simply create humdrum, as was expected by many. Maccabi Netanya, a team that finished second in the Israeli league for two of the last three years, was one side that experienced the nasty taste of upset on Saturday when it was beaten at home by Hapoel Haifa. The result could well set the tone for the weeks and months to come, with the new upstarts battling to make their presence felt among the big boys. And the economic crisis may also, ironically, have a positive effect on the competitiveness of the league. Netanya is a good example. Whereas for the last three years owner Daniel Jammer was happy to throw his cash around, wasting much of it on bringing poor-quality celebrity coach Lothar Matthaus to the seaside town last season, he has now pulled most of his funding. This has left Maccabi in a strange situation where it has suddenly reverted back to a sort of also-ran team with a point to prove, with nearly all of its top players moving away in the summer. Two other top flight teams have been changed by the economic situation, although Betar Jerusalem and Maccabi Tel Aviv could well emerge far stronger as the campaign continues. The purchase of Maccabi Tel Aviv by Canadian Mitch Goldhar from fellow countryman Alex Shnaider has allowed an individual with solid business sense and sensible expectations to take over and attempt to build for the long term. The same can be said of Guma Aguiar's involvement in Betar Jerusalem. In these cases the teams will not be made up of the highly paid stars they were in the past, which will create a far more level playing field for the entire league. The final piece of the jigsaw is Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv's need to focus on two fronts at the same time. The two league favorites will find it hard to battle for both European and domestic prizes. Hapoel's weak 0-0 draw with Betar and Maccabi's narrow victory over Acre already provides ample evidence. That doesn't mean there will be a lack of quality. Both clubs have built up impressive squads and play entertaining soccer, not to mention the emergence of the Alona Barkat-backed Hapoel Beersheba as one of the teams to watch. Beersheba easily defeated Hapoel Ra'anana on Saturday and the addition of David Revivo to a squad which included Maor Melikson and Tvrtko Kale raises the excitement levels even more. As such, this season's battle for the championship could be one of the most exciting in many years.