Maccabi Petah Tikva had a clear line of defense going into its hearing at the Israel Football Association tribunal Tuesday regarding the violent aftermath of the team's match with Hapoel Haifa last month.
The team's lawyers, like the owner, tried to escape the punishment of having points deducted while relying on association regulations and the club's relatively clean past. Because Petah Tikva had never been deducted probationary points, it tried to argue that there is no justice in assigning the team liability, and that point deduction was either borderline delirium or a form of persecution.
The only thing they did not think about at Maccabi Petah Tikva is the prevailing mood among the tribunal's judges, attorneys Giora Landau and Yisrael Shimoni. They made the brave decision of taking responsibility in an era when everyone else is fleeing it.
The decision to be strict and deduct three points from Maccabi Petah Tikva's total in the Premier League standings, which significantly increases its chances to be relegated to the second tier next season, is not a whim. Neither is it a legal precedent, nor defiance of IFA chairman Avi Luzon nor capitulation to the sports journalists who demanded Petah Tikva's head.
Instead, this difficult decision is connected to the worldview of Landau and Shimoni, and it frames their view of their ability and obligation to save Israeli soccer from the violence that has stained it.
A veteran judge like Shimoni has examined numerous instances of violence, yet it seems this time he felt the problem was threatening to get beyond anyone's control. The incident in which two Maccabi Petah Tikva officials brutalized a Maccabi Haifa player is not just another case of violence by a handful of people, nor is it of a wound-up group of fans or a reckless player.
This is a case involving someone with an official role in a club, goalkeeping coach Ami Ganish, a sportsman in every bone in his body, who became a criminal. The fans in the stadium already have been lost. The sports Web sites are filled with incitement, soccer officials are in and out of police investigation rooms and now the last fortress has fallen: Even the playing field, the judges observed, is tainted.
The two judges understood well that Israeli soccer is being overcome by a tide of violence. They could have taken the easy way out by finding shelter in some clause or another in the regulations. They could have given the excuse that it is not the tribunal's place to demote a club. They could have buried their heads in the sand like so many soccer lovers do and talk about an isolated problem.
Fortunately for us, Landau and Shimoni wisely and bravely chose a punishment that perhaps will destroy the chances of Maccabi Petah Tikva avoiding relegation, but more likely will save Israeli soccer.
Their decision to ban Ganish from making a living out of the game for the next 18 months is an effective sanction like no other. It will serve as a deterrent to all athletes. If there's not enough sense in their heads to avoid hurting other athletes, perhaps hitting them in the pocket will do the job.
When he was prime minister, Menachem Begin accepted the rule of law even when it went against his sentiment or ideology. He coined the phrase, "There are judges in Jerusalem." Avi Luzon, who styles himself the prime minister of the government of soccer, should be proud - despite his great pain - that the tribunal is graced by such independent judges as Shimoni and Landau. He should declare that there are judges in Ramat Gan, too, then join them in the war against violence in soccer.
In time, the crackdown will benefit Maccabi Petah Tikva, too.
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