Five years ago, Maccabi Achi Nazareth was still in League A, three levels below the Premier League. Now, with the team just one victory away from moving up to Israel's top league, its managers are already dreaming about Europe.
Unlike the race for the Premier League championship, where the three contenders play this weekend over a span of three days, the four National League teams vying for the right to move up to the Premier League next year are all hosting games starting today at 16:30 against weak opponents.
Of the four teams - Achi Nazareth, Hapoel Jerusalem, Maccabi Herzliya and Bnei Sahnin - Nazareth has the best chance to advance. It can secure a slot in the Premier League by defeating its neighbor, Maccabi Kafr Kana, a team which is slated for relegation next season.
The chairman of Achi Nazareth, Askander Haddad, promises that his team's success will not be as short-lived as that of Hapoel Taibe, which made it to the summit of Israeli soccer at the end of the 1995-96 season.
"I won't fail," Haddad says. "I know how to avoid failure. Hapoel Taibe spent money extravagantly, while I know how to manage a budget. I'm a successful businessman."
At the beginning of the 1996-97 season, things still looked bright for Taibe. The city's mayor and patron of the club, Rafik Hajj Yihyeh, hired Voyzech Lazarek - a former coach of the Polish national team. Lazarek signed players from throughout Israel, hoping they would help the club survive in the top league. But the season started on the wrong foot when the club was not given approval to host rivals at its home field, but was forced to play "home" games in Netanya, Herzliya and Umm al-Fahm.
No fewer than 36 players played for the team that year, but Arab stars like Nejwan Grayeb were not among them. Affluent members of the Arab committee also failed to follow through on promises of financial support.
After a series of losses, Lazarek was sent packing, and Zvika Rosen was appointed coach. He also did not last long before being replaced by Rifat Turk. The team also suffered a difficult blow when talented striker Wahib Jabara collapsed during a game against Bnei Yehuda in April 1997 and died.
The team finished the season with only 15 points and a negative goal differential of 19 to 66, and has continued its downward spiral ever since.
Achi Nazareth is confident that this scenario will not repeat itself. The club's managers are already planning to raise funds at a celebration to mark its ascension to the Premier League, hoping that the money will help ensure that the team remains in the top league.
Haddad notes that the team has a NIS 2 million deficit and owes another million shekels to the tax authorities. Suleiman Taha, Nazareth's general manager, admits that the team is carrying a NIS 2 million debt, but says it stayed within its yearly budget of NIS 5 million. Taha believes the team will be double its budget next year via broadcasting revenues and funds from the Nazareth municipality.
"This is not a lot of money for a Premier League team," Taha says, brimming with optimism. "Remember, if we ascend to the Premier League, we'll win the championship or another title within three years."
Haddad is equally enthusiastic. "Next year, the team will be in the middle of the Premier League standings. The year after that, we'll play in UEFA. That's our goal."
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