The lofty leaders of the pack

Reuven Atar and Avi Ashkenazi stood out from the rest of their coaching colleagues to earn nods for end-of-season honors.

Soccer The past 10 months have been some of the most tumultuous in the history of Betar Jerusalem FC - from the 5-0 loss at Wisla Krakow in August's Champions League qualifier, through the disappearance of owner Arkadi Gaydamak in November and the subsequent questions over the club's finances. In the face of the massive pressure, one man somehow managed to steady the ship and mold the team of under-fire stars into a coherent winning unit which claimed the State Cup and finished in a respectable third place in the league standings. Many eyebrows were raised when Reuven Atar was brought in to replace coach Itzhak Schum at Betar just shortly after the start of the league season. Atar had been sacked by Maccabi Netanya a few months earlier after owner Daniel Jammer opted to hire former German international Lothar Matthaus even though the club had finished second in the league for the past two seasons. Atar was not the big name many fans had been expecting and hoping for and initially found it hard to get Betar out of the rut it had fallen into after the loss in Poland. However, the man with the most famous haircut in Israeli football eventually found his feet and took control. When Betar lost 4-0 at Hapoel Tel Aviv in February it was a wake up call to all those involved - step up or give up. Before the defeat at Bloomfield, Jerusalem had been on a 10-game unbeaten run and been playing acceptably, but not well enough to satisfy its hungry supporters. The coach gave his team the rollicking it deserved and the players responded by putting in much better performances. Atar was not scared to make tough decisions, leaving out former star midfielder Derek Boateng at the start, and up-and-coming striker Toto Tamuz for much of the season, while taking a gamble on young forward Idan Vered. Vered's important contribution to the league and cup campaigns proved the capabilities of Atar as a coach who can create exciting attacking sides. With Betar Jerusalem's future up in the air, it is unknown whether Atar will stay for next season. But his efforts and results in 2009 cemented his position as a top-level coach and one to watch for in the future. Basketball When Jeff Rosen took over as owner of Maccabi Haifa in the summer of 2007, the pressure was on him to find a coach who could manage the high expectations which he began to build up for the club. The man who made his fortune in the toy and stationary business had promised to put Haifa back at the top of Israeli basketball after nearly a decade in the wilderness. Rosen settled on former Haifa coach Avi Ashkenazi, who returned to the primary club from the North eight years after leaving for Ironi Nahariya. In May 2008, Haifa beat Maccabi Netanya in a playoff and found itself in the BSL. Even more pressure was applied at the outset of the campaign as Haifa was continuously compared to the previous year's champion, Hapoel Holon, which also made an incredible impact on the league in its first season after being promoted. Despite the intense focus on the team in green, heightened by Rosen's efforts to promote the organization in the US and the decision to change the team's nickname to Maccabi Haifa "Heat", Ashkenazi managed to exceed all expectations, leading his side to both the BSL and State Cup finals in his first year in charge. Ashkenazi handled the hype and brought his team through it with great aplomb and professionalism. As is the case in most Israeli basketball clubs, the summer is a time of significant change in the make-up of the team. Ashkenazi wasted no time spotting young foreign talent, which he combined with some of the more experienced Israeli players to create a formidable defense-focused team. In came 25-year-old American point guard Doron Perkins, who had been the steals and assists king in Belgium's first division in 2007/08 while playing for Bree, and his 22-year-old fellow countryman Davon Jefferson, a forward out of USC. Israelis Ido Kozikaro and Moshe Mizrahi gave the Heat the experience they needed to fight for the top places in the Israeli league. Ashkenazi's genius was in his ability to bring these elements together and produce one of the tightest teams in the BSL. Only a last-gasp three-pointer from Hapoel Holon's Brian Tolbert prevented Haifa lifting the Cup, and the greens even went 12 points ahead in the BSL title game before Maccabi Tel Aviv came back and won the final. Rosen has already guaranteed Ashkenazi his position for the coming season, and the coach is surely already thinking of ways to improve on an impressive first year on the job.