The Last Word: The serious business of European competition

Euro 2008 feels like a distant memory and most Israeli clubs have begun preseason training, with 5 preparing for European competitions.

jeremy last better pic (photo credit: Courtesy)
jeremy last better pic
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It's amazing how quickly the soccer summer ends. We're only at the start of July, but Euro 2008 already feels like a distant memory and most of the Israeli clubs are in the midst of preseason training, with five of them preparing for the early rounds of the European competitions. While Betar Jerusalem, Maccabi Netanya, Ironi Kiryat Shmona and Hapoel Tel Aviv have a few more weeks to complete their plans, Bnei Sakhnin will kick off its season on Sunday in the Intertoto Cup with an away game at Macedonia's fifth-best team FK Renova. Sakhnin's new coach Freddy David appeared to be less than excited about a trip to Eastern Europe this early in the summer when he spoke to reporters at Ben-Gurion airport on Thursday. David's decision to send a team made up of mostly youth players, which includes no foreigners, unfortunately sums up an attitude to European competition which is prevalent in Israeli soccer. It may, at first glance, seem like an easy tie with little to worry about, but this is still not the professional way to approach a game of this caliber, especially with the winner drawn to play a money-spinning tie against Spain's Deportivo La Coruna. One of the players questioned at the airport about his teams' opponents confessed that he had little idea about the tactics or strategies of the Renova team. This lax mindframe could very well set Sakhnin up for a fall. Last season, Maccabi Haifa's players and management seemed disinterested in the build up to the club's Intertoto tie against Romanian minnows Gloria Bistrata, and, lo and behold, the once-great Greens were quickly knocked out. Macedonia may not be the best soccer-playing country, however another team which had finished fifth in the Macedonian First League the previous season, FK Sileks, scored three goals at Bloomfield in the first leg of its tie against Betar Jerusalem three years ago (albeit, in losing 4-3 on the day and 6-4 on aggregate). Betar has made massive strides over since 2005 and now faces a Champions League second-round qualifying match for the second year in succession. The moment on Tuesday afternoon when the players found who they would be playing against was caught on camera by Israeli television, and, again, showed a lack of professionalism and understanding of European soccer. When told his team would be playing against Polish side Wisla Krakow, Betar's vice captain and veteran central defender Arik Benado let out a screech of joy, apparently unaware that Krakow had lost only one game on the way to winning the Orange Ekstraklase title by 14 points last season. Of course, Betar itself was far and away the best team in the Israeli Premier League last season, and should be strengthened by the signing of Uruguayan international striker Sebastian 'El Loco' Abreu from Argentinian champion River Plate last week. And although Benado and his fellow teammates covered up their excitement when interviewed later at the team's training camp in Holland, saying all the right things - "there are no easy ties at this level" and "teams from Poland are tough" - the damage was done. But the team from the capital is lucky to have a coach as experienced in European competition as Itzhak Schum, the man who took Maccabi Haifa to the group stage of the Champions League six years ago and then repeated the feat with Panathinaikos of Greece the following season. According to reports in the local media, Schum quite rightly didn't take too kindly to the relaxed reaction of his players and gave them a severe dressing down behind closed doors before restarting training. If any coach in Israel is likely to have an even stricter attitude towards his players than Schum, it would Maccabi Netanya's new taskmaster, Lothar Matthaus. There have been many questions asked about whether Matthaus is the right person for Netanya, a team which has a group of young Israeli players at its heart. But a man of his background, who has won numerous club and international titles including the World Cup, the European Championship, seven Bundesliga championships with Bayern Munich and Serie A with Inter Milan, clearly knows what should be expected from players. This is far from his first coaching job and there is every chance Netanya will challenge Betar for the league title this coming season.When he held his first training session on Wednesday, Matthaus looked 100 percent serious and ready to go. Netanya will find out later this month which team it will play in the second round of qualifying for the UEFA Cup, but rest assured that while others relax, Matthaus's boys will be getting primed and ready for the big time.