The Last Word: Can Gaydamak buy success for Betar?

Last week Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich was in Israel, apparently to attend a preseason tournament featuring four Russian soccer teams. What became obvious very soon after his arrival in the country was that the Chelsea chairman was not simply here to watch a few friendly matches. In between visits to the Western Wall, Abramovich was widely featured in the Israeli media meeting with Israeli-Russian businessman Lev Leviev and Avraham Grant, the coach of Israel's national soccer team who will take over as coach of Hapoel Tel Aviv after the end of this season. Leviev, who bought Hapoel Tel Aviv last month, is the latest sugar daddy to pump his money into a soccer team in the hope of transforming it into a worldleading brand. Abramovich, who was consistently seen with Chelsea's sporting director Frank Arnesen during his Israel trip, is believed to be forging a link between the two clubs. Hapoel Tel Aviv is currently sitting in second place in the Israeli Premier League standings, two points in front of Betar Jerusalem, another club enjoying the backing of a rich Russian Jew. This time last year it would have been laughable to compare Betar to soon-tobe-crowned English Premiership winner Chelsea, apart from the fact that both teams play in capital cities. The London club has been built on both the seemingly unlimited funds of Abramovich and the acquisition of coach Jose Mourinho to create a formidable side. The Jerusalem team was nothing but consistently inconsistent. Not only was the Israeli club deep in debt, but firstteam affairs were run by the tactically inept Eli Ohana, who looked like he had no chance of bringing joy to the club's success-starved, incredibly loyal supporters. Fast forward a year and the situation could not be more different. Billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak has promised to make Betar into a runaway success and a symbol of the Jewish people. And maybe he can. Until this weekend things did not appear to be going completely according to plan. Gaydamak has appeared to be more interested in attracting big names than forming soccer harmony. Even though Dutch coach Ton Caanen had created a new atmosphere and optimism in the club when he joined in October, the Russian decided that Luis Fernandez, a former Paris Saint Germain and Athletico Bilbao manager, would be more suitable in terms of raising the profile of Betar; and Caanen was out. Fernandez seemed more interested in bringing in players he had worked with rather than players that will be able to work together. Frenchmen Jerome Leroy (who is currently injured) and Fabrice Fernandes were soon followed by Spaniard David Aganzo, and Israeli Gal Alberman. All good players, but last week's dismal performance at home against Ashdod SC seemed to show that maybe money won't buy success. However, on Saturday night the tables were turned. Suddenly, Fernandez's team performed. The 3-0 away win over a tough Hapoel Petah Tikva team has instilled hope that perhaps Fernandez will soon be able to bring a championship to Teddy Stadium for the first time since 1999. Fernandes provided a great cross for Aviram Bruchian to head in the first goal. Aganzo looked tricky throughout and scored a lovely freekick for the second. Substitutes Barak Itzhaki and Maor Melikson combined for the third. What was most impressive was how solid the team looked at the back, with Betar's elder statesman David Amsalem shoring up the center of the defense in the absence of Igor Mitreski and Tomer Ben-Yosef. There have been many attempts to buy success in soccer, from Blackburn Rovers to Real Madrid, and so far the jury is still out on the Gaydamak-Betar experiment. But, whatever happens with Hapoel Tel Aviv next season, the rivalry with Betar won't just be for second place - both will be challenging Maccabi Haifa for the top spot.