Handball / Playoff Finals / Israel's ?Winningest Sports Team' Takes Championship

Mac. Rishon defeats Hapoel Rishon for third straight crown

Maccabi Rishon Letzion defeated crosstown rival Hapoel 27-23 at home yesterday to win its third straight championship, the team's ninth overall in history.

Maccabi was confident coming into the game, but Hapoel, led by the outstanding play of goalkeeper Andrei Kamishev, broke out to an 8-6 lead during the first 25 minutes.

Maccabi came back to tie the game at 10, and from that point on it was only a matter of time before the defending champ would seal the victory and the finals.

A power outage with 67 seconds left in the game delayed the celebrations, which broke out right after the game.

"We're the winningest sports team in Israel," Maccabi star Tom Matalon said after the game. "Everyone talked about Hapoel throughout the season, but they didn't make it past the State Cup final, and we came back from a 10-goal deficit in the final, and a deficit in game to take our third straight championship."

Chen Birenbaum called this year's victory "the toughest championship," and that was not without reason: Maccabi's participation in the European Cup tired out the team.

Coach Gilad Maor also talked about this year's accomplishments.

"When I took the first championship, I said the goal was to build a dynasty and we did that, without reinforcements, but with Mordi Sordu and Ariel Rosenthal. People said our players didn't play defense, but today they gave their all and proved that they're winners."

Hapoel led the league throughout the regular season, and had not lost a game until the State Cup semifinals, but a loss to ASA Tel Aviv shook the team's confidence, along with injuries to Idan Maimon and Dima Yandovitsky.

"I congratulate Maccabi," Hapoel coach Kobi Maimon said. "I'm proud of my players today. They fought as best as they could, but some of the injuries they suffered from toward the end hurt us."

Maccabi's dynasty, meanwhile, appears to be at a crossroads. The Romanian Johann Rushka, who wants to play in Europe, will be released, Gal Abraham and Matalon are in negotiations with the Romanian club Costanza, and may be going there together with Hapoel's Maimon.

Even Maor does not know whether he will continue. "One needs challenges," he said. "I came to Maccabi and earned three championships and two State Cups. I don't know what will be in the future. I'm taking a two-week vacation abroad, and we'll see what happens when we get back."