The Last Word: The club from the North hits back

The reinstatement of Haifa as the sporting capital is truly deserved.

jeremy last new 298.88 (photo credit: Jeremy Last)
jeremy last new 298.88
(photo credit: Jeremy Last)
If any indicator was needed of the incredible renaissance of Maccabi Haifa, today's announcement of the Jerusalem Post's season MVPs for both basketball and soccer (see page 12) says it all. Yaniv Katan's performances for Maccabi Haifa on the soccer field and Doron Perkins's for the Haifa Heat on the basketball court were key to ensuring superb seasons for both organizations. Two weeks ago Maccabi Haifa's basketball team catapulted itself from near-obscurity a year ago to within a whisker of claiming a first-ever BSL championship. And a few days later the soccer team beat off the strong challenge of Hapoel Tel Aviv to win back the Premier League after finishing fifth for two seasons in a row. The contributions of the owners of the two clubs - Jeffrey Rosen in basketball and Jacob Shahar in soccer - have been paramount to their success. Rosen and Shahar have managed to tread the thin tightrope between taking an active interest but not getting overly involved in team affairs. Both chose the right coach to take control, Avi Ashkenazi for the basketball team and Elisha Levy for the soccer team, and let them get on with the job in hand. That job was to put Haifa right back on the map, locally and internationally. This past year has confirmed the North as the center point for the powerhouses of Israeli sports. The third-largest city in the country has sometimes been overlooked in sporting terms, with Jerusalem and Tel Aviv always attempting to outdo it. When Roni Levy's years in Haifa began to turn sour two years ago there was concern among its fans that it would be falling by the wayside. But Shahar has ensured this was far from the case, and Haifa hit back big time this past season. And Rosen's funding and enthusiasm pushed Maccabi Haifa Heat first back into the top division a year ago, and now into Europe. Next season the Heat will represent Israel in the Eurocup for the first time, while Maccabi will aim to be the first team since Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2004 to compete in the Champions League group stage. The success of Haifa's teams this year didn't stop in the top flight. It also included Hapoel Haifa winning the National League to ensure promotion to the Premier League for the first time since 2005 and the revival of the derby games against Maccabi. And the prospects for the future also look good after Maccabi Haifa's youth team won the soccer youth league title. All this is truly important for sports in Israel as it spreads support and participation throughout the country. Next season there will be teams in the Premier League from Haifa in the north down to Beersheba in the south. Living in the tension-filled Middle East, sports often serve the purpose of providing a brief respite from the more important life and death issues which face us daily. This has been all too apparent for the residents of the north of the country in recent years, when Hezbollah's rockets rained down on the cities and towns. After all those difficult years, the reinstatement of Haifa as the sporting capital is truly deserved.