What's wrong with Israeli soccer that makes Wigan more palatable than Tel Aviv?
Until the level of competition improves, Israel's premier league will remain a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
"If I go to Israel, it will be on loan until the end of the season. I don't intend to play in Israel forever - I want to return to England next season." Reading this recent comment by Daniel De Ridder, one could be excused for thinking that the Israeli soccer premier league was something akin to a kick-about with the lads at the weekend.
It is not that the Israeli premier league should be better than what is arguably the best league in the world (the English Premiership), but if a Jewish player with an Israeli mother is struggling to make the Wigan Athletic substitutes bench, why does he feel that playing for Hapoel Tel Aviv is so unattractive an alternative?
After all, Hapoel is through to the next round of the Europa league, having topped a group that includes Celtic. And if rainy Wigan is seen as a better choice than sunny seaside Tel Aviv, it certainly raises a few questions regarding the current state of Israeli club football.
One clear turn off for prospective players is the severe lack of competition, shown by Maccabi Haifa's blatant dominance for the past decade or so, in which it has won six championships, and looks likely to win a seventh this season. This lack of competition is further exemplified by the Israeli Football Association's absurd structural changes to the league this season.
In order to increase the level of competition, the IFA has decided that at the end of the season, all the teams should be divided into three play-off groups and have their points halved to make it a closer run thing. In other words, they have decided the best way to determine league standings is to ignore the league standings.
The teams in the top group play each other to determine the winners of the championship and the European spots; the teams in the third group play each other to determine who will be relegated; and the teams in the second group play each other for no apparent reason at all.
The IFA has effectively said to all the leagues: "This is how we think a league should be run," and all the leagues have replied, "Erm, no, we prefer the normal way of running it." It is quite frankly embarrassing, and must cast doubt in many players' minds as to whether it would be a wise career decision to move to Israel.
In addition to the failures in competitive structure, the Israeli soccer league is quite clearly inhibited by the limit of five foreign players in each squad. Without a doubt, if the focus is solely on developing young Israeli talent, then a quota system such as this has some value. Clubs are forced to play young native players with a regularity that clubs from other leagues do not endure. But in UEFA's league rankings, Israel's premier league lies in a distinctly average 20th place, behind (among others) Austria, where soccer is far from the number one sport. This suggests that the opportunity cost of helping develop youth by having a foreign quota is far too high.
A better way of encouraging youth development would be to limit the number of foreign players clubs have in the starting team, rather than their whole squad. This would effectively enable clubs to buy as many foreign players as they want, and because the players would know that there was competition for a limited number of starting berths, they would have added incentive to perform to the best of their abilities to ensure that they start.
Players performing at a higher standard would undoubtedly improve the quality of the league. This differs greatly to the current system, where perverse incentives mean that all foreign players know that their clubs are overwhelmingly likely to start them whatever their level of performance, to avoid wasting their small quota allowance.
There is much to admire about the Israeli premier league - anyone who has experienced the atmosphere at a Beitar Jerusalem or Hapoel Tel Aviv game can attest to that. Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel give Israel a good reputation in Europe, and some very good players began their professional lives in Israel.
But that is the crux of the matter. Until the IFA improves the level of competition - easily achievable by changing or removing the quota system - the Israeli Premier league will remain just that: a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
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