Israeli clubs fret over futures

JERUSALEM - Three of Israel's best-known football clubs face an uncertain future after learning that they will lose their financial backers.

Alona Barkat of Hapoel Beersheba and Maccabi Netanya's Daniel Jammer both said unruly behaviour by some fans was the final straw and announced last week that they would stop funding the two mid-table Premier League clubs at the end of the season.

Beersheba and Netanya, like Beitar Jerusalem - once Israel's richest club - face starting next season without a major financial backer.

Beitar's owner, Russian-born billionaire Arkady Gaydamak, is wanted on money-laundering charges and has not been seen in Israel for more than a year.

Barkat pulled the plug on Beersheba after angry fans forced the car of coach Guy Azuri off the road following a disappointing 2-2 draw against bottom side Ahi Nazareth.

Israeli police confirmed the incident. "An individual was tracked down after (Azuri) reported his car registration. He has been questioned and police are preparing to charge him," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

Azuri, clearly shaken, quit the following morning and Barkat, the only female boss of a top-flight club, made her announcement a day later.

"I have come to the conclusion that I cannot continue like this. The incident that led to Guy Azuri's resignation was a red line for me...this cannot happen when I am in charge," Barkat told a news conference.


Reports have estimated that Barkat spent some $10 million on Beersheba during her three-and-a-half-year guardianship. The club have had 17 coaches in the past decade.

Netanya's German owner Jammer, who said he had invested $25 million in the three-and-a-half seasons he has been in control, said he was disenchanted and had had enough.

"I don't feel appreciated, I feel that there is a lot of anger and hate... I need to enjoy what I do. For the first three years I enjoyed my time, and I don't want to hear curses or need to be protected, I think it is time to go," Jammer said at Ben-Gurion airport before flying out of Tel Aviv.

Neither Barkat nor Jammer managed to boost their clubs' fan base. Jammer recruited German Lothar Matthaus to coach Netanya but, despite good league results, fans were not drawn in and Matthaus departed after one season.

Gaydamak spent some $100 million in his four years as Beitar boss. He enticed many top local players to the club and hired coaches such as Ossie Ardiles and Luis Fernandez, paying salaries far higher than any previously seen in Israeli soccer.

However, Gaydamak's reported financial woes and his humiliation in the Jerusalem municipal elections in 2008 where he had hoped mass fan support would boost him to the mayor's job, proved a sobering experience that now leaves the club desperate for help.

Gaydamak's outlay netted the father of former Portsmouth owner Alexandre Gaydamak two championships and two cup wins but it could not change the fact that Israeli soccer is rarely a profitable enterprise, even for the most successful sides.

Beitar were dealt a further setback last month when Brazilian tycoon Guma Aguiar, who had promised to pick up Gaydamak's tab, had to back out due to ill health and family pressure.


Money worries have affected other clubs and, following Barkat's announcement, newspapers published picture line-ups of major financial players who had got involved with clubs before departing very much poorer.

Two notable exceptions are runaway league leaders Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv, currently their only realistic challengers, both of whom have also had European success.

Haifa owner Yaacov Shahar was the first tycoon to enter the fray in 1992 and has stayed, turning his club into Israel's most consistently successful outfit in the past two decades.

From the early days, Shahar learned to pick his battles and when other teams were in the ascendency he preferred to sit tight and cut his spending.

Largely through Shahar's prudent approach, Haifa became Israel's first Champions League group-stage participants in 2003 and they took part again this season.

Shahar marginally upped his spending on a planned $12-million budget set for the current season and, while Haifa disappointed and did not score a goal or win a point in their group, a recent balance sheet showed the club had an operating profit.

Hapoel Tel Aviv, while less dominant than Haifa at home, have also had success through careful investment from a number of prudent owners over the years and may declare positive financial results after a recent good run in the Europa League.