The Last Word: Is this the end of the Maccabi dynasty?

Its defeat at Ashkelon last Monday proved that TA is no longer the all conquering side it once was.

jeremy last 88 (photo credit: )
jeremy last 88
(photo credit: )
It's been only three and a half years since I made aliya from the UK, but how the Israeli sports scene has changed in such a short space of time. Back in January 2005 there were two dynasties which looked like they were never going to be ended. The then-practically unbeatable Maccabi Haifa was on its way to winning its third soccer league title in four years while in basketball Maccabi Tel Aviv really was unbeatable, having only lost the league title once since 1969. This situation didn't exactly endear the local sports scene to me. There's nothing like a lack of competition to dampen the soul and bore the fans. So the sea-change which has occurred over the last two years can only be seen as a good thing for everyone involved (well, except for the fans, players and management of Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Tel Aviv). In a situation which would have been unthinkable after Haifa walked its way to the league title in May 2006, the club has well and truly been deposed at the top of Israeli soccer by Betar Jerusalem and looks likely to finish in fifth place for the second season in a row. At the start of this season the former Champions League competitor was knocked out of the Intertoto Cup by Romanian minnows FC Gloria Bistrata, underlining the club's fall from grace. The question now is whether the same will happen to Maccabi Tel Aviv's basketball team. Clearly, the Maccabi dynasty is far, far stronger, having withstood numerous attempts at a coup. In fact, avid readers of the Metro supplement may remember a column I wrote only a year ago when I was sure Hapoel Jerusalem was going to become the new force in Israeli hoops. But for a last second Jamie Arnold basket in last season's final, Jerusalem would have won an amazing league and cup double and I could have been proved right. Hapoel has since fallen by the wayside and may even miss out on the Final Four, but that's a different column. However, things have also changed at Tel Aviv, and not for the better. Last season Maccabi was a little out of sorts, with much of the blame rightly placed on its underconfident coach Neven Spahija. This season it has played far worse, both at the start of the season under Oded Katash and in recent games under Tzvika Sherf. There were many who thought the win over Montepaschi Siena at the Euroleague Final Four in Madrid two weeks ago signalled the end of Tel Aviv's slump, but it actually turned out to be just a lucky blip, mostly thanks to an out of character stunning performance by ageing captain Derrick Sharp. Its defeat at Ashkelon last Monday proved that finally Maccabi Tel Aviv can actually be considered a regular, beatable team, rather than the all conquering side it once was. The increase in quality among the other teams has also contributed to the change, and introduced some much needed excitement into the local basketball league. Hapoel Holon has had an incredible season. even after receiving a technical loss for fan trouble at a Hapoel Jerusalem game in November. At this moment Holon is considered favorite for the title, if it comes through, it could be the most significant win in the history of sports in this country.