The Last Word: The dangers of playing preseason matches in January

Friendly matches are always a useful preseason exercise. They help the coaches get used to their new players, practice new formations and encourage the team to get used to playing with each other. Professional soccer teams around the world often take part in international preseason tournaments which give the public a chance to see their favorite teams with new players as well as watching their teams play Continental opposition. While over the years the tournaments have evolved into money-making opportunities, especially over the last few summers when a number of European teams played in the US, there is always a clear inherent value to them. The games are there to help the players prepare for the new season. So it would seem quite obvious to most people that a preseason friendly tournament should always be just that - preseason. There would be little benefit competing in a friendly tournament slap bang in the middle of the most crucial stage of a team's domestic season. Few, if any, professional teams would be so shortsighted that they would risk injury to their top players just a few days before some of the most important local games of the year. Erm, except Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv that is. So over the last week it has become increasingly difficult to understand exactly what is the point of the Channel One Cup which is currently taking place in Israel. Four Eastern European teams - two from Russia and two from Ukraine - have flown to the Holy Land as part of what they see as important preparation for the start and second stage of their local seasons, respectively. And Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa have given up their own time to compete in the tournament. Despite the massive public relations campaign, expected arrival of Chelsea owner and tournament sponsor Roman Abramovich, and the cool million-dollar prize for the winner, there has been little interest in the competition. It is obviously good preparation for CSKA Moscow, Dynamo Kiev, Spartak Moscow and Shaktar Donetsk, especially for CSKA, which is due to face Haifa in the UEFA Cup in a couple of weeks. And it would also be extremely beneficial for the Israeli teams to play against these four clubs, which all featured in the Champions League this season - were the tournament not taking place at such a random time. The effects have already been plain to see. Haifa may have managed a credible draw with Kiev on Wednesday night but it didn't help their players perform any better in their league game against Maccabi Herzliya over the weekend, when they sank to new depths in getting hammered 4-0. And not only was Hapoel embarrassed 4-1 by CSKA on Thursday night, new Chilean signing Manuel Neira was seriously injured only five minutes into his debut and captain Yossi Abuksis also suffered an injury that ensured he was unable to play in Sunday night's derby against Maccabi Tel Aviv. While there is a small amount of prestige in being involved in an international competition, it is clearly taking place at completely the wrong time. Betar Jerusalem's win over Ashdod SC on Saturday night put pressure on the other teams at the top, and Arkadi Gaydamak must feel delighted that the yellow-and-black were not invited to take part in the Channel One Cup. Unfortunately, it is likely that the two main motivations for the Hapoel and Maccabi managements was money and the opportunity to rub shoulders with Abramovich, one of the richest people on the planet. Maybe now they will have realized that it was wrong to compromise their teams and their integrity in return for a quick buck and an ego boost.