In public, members of FC Ashdod make sure to compliment Kiryat Shmona on its Premier League championship. Some players even called to send their personal best wishes. "They did something great," says Ashdod striker Idan Shriki. "They deserve congratulations."
Yet deep inside, many in Ashdod say they feel a pinch in their heart when they look at their northern neighbors. "We should have done what Kiryat Shmona accomplished this year," says one member of the club. "The big teams did terribly. We waited years for this opportunity. We have a huge fan base, a great coach who is more seasoned than Ran Ben Shimon and good relationships with management."
Ashdod's coach, Yossi Mizrahi, can only reflect on what might have been. The team started January within breathing distance of Kiryat Shmona. But after the so-called alternative match of the season against Bnei Yehuda, which ended in a scoreless draw, things went downhill for Ashdod. The team went from posing a real threat for the title to just another team in the league, picking up only 13 points in the past 13 matches.
"Clearly, something mental is going on," says the coach. "But never forget that last summer we were saved from relegation in the late stages. We are in the upper playoff and can qualify for Europe. From our perspective, it's been a good season."
One would be hard-pressed to find opposition in Ashdod to the coach or to Jacky Ben-Zaken, the owner. Many there tend to agree with Mizrahi's take on the team's mental challenges. However, one player on the team says, "You can't always talk about last season's relegation battle. You have to think big and not look at the past. Ashdod has played many more years in the Premier League than Kiryat Shmona." All this talk about where the team was, he says, sends a message to the players that being in the upper playoff is a big deal. "Kiryat Shmona, which lacks tradition and experience, wasn't ashamed to aim for the championship," he says.
Shriki says the team's goal this season was to reach Europe, and that no one was talking about a championship. He says that perhaps after doing so well in the first round of 15 matches things got a little confused. "From the start we wanted to reach the upper playoff and try to win a cup," he says. "Let's be honest - we don't have a championship team. We aren't deep, and you can't ignore what happened last season. Our young players are small-time compared to what Kiryat Shmona acquired." Shriki notes that Kiryat Shmona also did well with its foreign players.
"We're building for the long term, believing the titles are still to come," says Shriki. "The question is whether Kiryat Shmona will show the same ability down the road."
The story of Ashdod's loss of momentum is intimately tied to the wholesale release of eight players in January. Only Tamir Kahlon joined, and the team called up seven players from its youth team.
"The policy in Ashdod is to weave in young players and not acquisitions," explains Mizrahi. He says the team could have picked up three other players during the January transfer window, among them Hapoel Acre's Stefan Scepovic.
Acre wanted a considerable sum to loan out Sapovic, who was needed to make a title run. Mizrahi says Ben-Zaken gave the go-ahead to acquire these players, but negotiations blew up in the final two days of the transfer window. If the talks had worked out, he says, things would look very different now. Shmuel Buchris, the assistant coach, also says the owner was willing to invest enough money to compete for the championship.
Adir Tubul, Ashdod's veteran defender, recalls that after losing the season opener 4-0 to Maccabi Tel Aviv, most of the talk was about relegation. "After three months when we were in second place, they were rushing us off to the championship," he says. "It's hard to explain what happened to us. There is no professional or psychological explanation. It was a matter of one loss leading to another, referee mistakes, conceding 90th-minute goals and missed chances."
Tubul says there was no title talk in Ashdod, but that was because his players are young and do not brag. "Balance brought Kiryat Shmona a championship," he says. "We played attacking, attractive soccer, even more so than them. But Kiryat Shmona was balanced and efficient."
It is debatable whether or not Ashdod missed its one chance to win a title in a league dominated by Maccabi Haifa, Hapoel Tel Aviv, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Beitar Jerusalem, says Tubul.
"The past teaches us that a small team can only win the Israeli championship once in 20 years, but I believe this will change," he says. "The gap between the big teams and the small teams is shrinking. Many players go to Europe, mostly from the big teams. So I see a team like Ashdod having a shot at the title next season."
According to Tubul, some people believe that Ashdod plays for fun and misses out at the higher levels. But Tubul believes the team is capable of competing for the championship next season, especially if it comes up trumps with its next crop of foreigners.
While Tubul looks ahead, Shriki says there is still something to save this season. "This week is our most fateful one this season," he said before last night's State Cup quarterfinal. "First we have to beat Maccabi Petah Tikva... and then Maccabi Tel Aviv in the league" to increase hope of punching the ticket to Europe via one of the two competitions.
Ashdod's convincing 3-1 win Monday sent a message the team has not given up this season.
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