Edin Cocalic, Maccabi Haifa's center back, is pleased that a defense- oriented coach, Arik Benado, has taken over at Maccabi Haifa, and believes he won't leave Israel until his club wins the title.
"To be honest, I was a bit scared before the Maccabi Tel Aviv game," said Cocalic. "Of course you believe in yourself and your pals, and before the game we were already on a good roll, but we were afraid. Maccabi Tel Aviv has excellent attacking players, and they score lots of goals. But fear is something you can use to remain focused and disciplined." On Monday night, with the 1-0 win, it worked for the Bosnian center back, but things changed before that game. In Haifa's last five games, the team conceded only one goal, compared to five goals in Reuven Atar's last three games.
Cocalic is well aware of the change ushered in by Benado: "Apart from the obvious mental change, Arik is familiar with all the players since he quit the game only a year and a half ago. I don't believe we played well on defense before he came. Every coach has a different style. Reuven was a more offense- minded player than Arik, but now I feel we're more organized, closer to each other on the pitch, and more disciplined. One can't win soccer games without a solid defense; I believe it all starts there. When the defense is steady, the attacking players have more freedom to try different things."
Are you surprised by Benado's immediate success?
"I was aware that he understands the game, from last year when he was assistant coach, but yes, I am surprised, because these are his first steps as head coach. I won't say that he's already the best coach in the world, but one can see he's doing a good job. You can't argue with the results."
Nor can you argue with the season's earlier results.
"When a team finds itself in a slump, when nothing works for you, you lose confidence. It begins with questions you ask yourself, like, 'What isn't working? What did I do wrong?' and when that continues, the snowball keeps on rolling, you can't manage to win, and you can't find the answers. You begin wondering if you're good enough, because you're well aware that you're playing for Maccabi Haifa. We should be in first or second, not at the bottom of the table. Now, with that period behind us, we have to remember that times like that can come back again, and if that happens, to remain strong."
Maccabi Haifa could lose its way again?
"I know that everybody believes that now that we've started winning, we can't be stopped."
You're aiming for the championship?
"I talked to a few players today, and they all feel that seventh place isn't good enough for us, doesn't suit us. We shouldn't be thinking too far ahead, we should aim to climb up one place at a time, until we reach the top. We're Maccabi Haifa, and our goal is the title. Everything is now possible. A nine-point gap can be closed." Who do you think is the best team in the league?
"Maccabi Tel Aviv is the strongest. They didn't play that well against us, but they led the league for many weeks, they play attacking soccer and have a good coach. I believe they're stronger than Hapoel Tel Aviv at this point in time, but for some reason we find it harder to play against Hapoel. In two games against Hapoel, I conceded seven goals (4:1 last season, 3:0 this season ). That doesn't happen to me often."
And what will happen when Hapoel arrives at Kiryat Eliezer in a few weeks?
"Something completely different. I want my revenge." The world "revenge" doesn't sound natural when coming from Cocalic, who chose to celebrate the victory on Monday at home. Father of a two year old daughter, he is soft spoken, almost gentle, a far cry from what one usually expects from center backs and soccer players in general. He doesn't brag, but is well aware of his talents. Asked about Dekel Keinan, for example, he answers: "He's a tough player who works much harder than me, a classic center back. I'm rather more technical than him. I prefer to play on the ground than to just kick the ball upfield."
Cocalic left Bosnia five years ago. At 25, he still hasn't given up on his dream to play in the top European leagues, but feels that something important is missing before he can make the leap - a title. "If I leave Maccabi Haifa, I don't believe it will happen before I win a title. I must win the championship here in Israel, and we have the players and team to do it."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now