IFA Officials: Eyal Berkovic Lashed Out at Youth Team Coaches Because They Snubbed His Brother

Eyal Berkovic severely criticized the coaching staff of Israel's youth soccer teams on Sunday, generating angry reactions from the Israel Football Association's Youth Division yesterday. IFA officials attributed Berkovic's remarks (published in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz yesterday) to the fact that his younger brother, Nir, was not selected for the youth squad.

Nir Berkovic has played for Maccabi Haifa, Hapoel Kfar Sava, Ironi Rishon Letzion and Hapoel Ra'anana, but failed to stick with any of these clubs and will play with Ironi Nahariya in the fifth-level B League this season. He was never invited to join the national youth teams.

A day after the national team's disappointing loss to Slovenia, Berkovic cited a dearth of worthy successors as one of the reasons he is not ready to retire from the national team.

In this context, he launched into a diatribe against the coach of the national youth team, Ze'ev Zeltzer and assistant coach Avraham Bachar: "It seems like they've been there for 30 years already and the time has come to replace them. You can't see any work being done there, and the things a young player receives are simple, very technical. A player who gets to the youth teams doesn't have a role model or leader to draw information from. I think the time has come for a change in the Youth Division and to bring in other coaches."

Zeltzer was named head coach of the youth teams in late 1995. He trains the national youth team (18 and under) on a full-time basis, and is also responsible for the A and B youth squads, and the 16-and-under team. His assistant coach, Bachar, was appointed in 1998. Bachar coaches the 16-and-under team.

During Zeltzer's tenure, U-16s took third place in the European championships (with Benny Tabac as coach in 1996) and reached the championship tournament five more times. Some six months ago, Zeltzer and Bachar led the team to the latest tournament, which included just eight teams. (In previous years, 16 teams made it to the tournament.)

The European championships for the older age group (18 and under) has traditionally fielded just eight teams. Israel's team made it to the tournament for the first time in 1997. The star of the team was Yossi Benayoun, who now plays for the national team and Racing Santander in Spain.

Zeltzer received many calls from friends and reporters yesterday in the wake of Berkovic's remarks. "I don't want to involve Nir, who is a good kid, but not good enough professionally," Zeltzer said in response. "Eyal was angry, that's clear. What is he talking about, 30 years? Clearly, it was his chance to attack us for not giving Nir a chance."

The coach added that Eyal had tried to lobby for his younger brother: "Eyal tried to influence us in the past to invite Nir. It's not important how he did this. The point is that he asked people to talk with us. What he did yesterday was an unsuccessful attempt to take revenge. In my opinion, he would be better off focusing on the game against Malta on Wednesday.

"I don't have any arguments with Eyal and never have. His history of well-publicized disputes with Eli Ohana and European clubs speak for themselves. He should have taken an example from Haim Revivo, who said that they need to concentrate on the game against Malta. Even Yossi Abuksis could set a good example for him, or Avi Nimni.

"I read in the newspaper that he talked about achievements. Our achievements speak for themselves. I found Michael Zandberg at a high school in Ramat Gan. I invited Pini Balili from the Shimshon youth team to the national team. Where does Eyal think everyone came from? Did he ever come to see a practice session of the youth team?"

In response to the charge that he and Bachar use the wrong training system and are not role models, Zeltzer said: "When I receive 16-year-old players, do I need to teach them to cross a ball? I can teach them tactics. All the work should start at the clubs already at age six. He says I'm not a role model? Do I need to remind him that I also played on the national team and abroad, in the United States? If they invite me to lecture in Italy or Belgium, then they apparently appreciate me in Europe."

Bachar offered only a short response yesterday to Berkovic's criticism. "His remarks were nonsense spoken out of anger and there is no need to comment beyond this."

Ze'ev Berkovic, the father of Eyal and Nir, said during an interview with Radio Haifa yesterday, "It's true that Eyal is angry about what happened with Nir, but this was not the only reason he said these things. There are quite a few other things that could be said about Zeltzer. For example, his son was the coach of Hapoel Tel Aviv's youth team and then 80 percent of Hapoel's players were on the national youth team. I can also say that Gavri Levi once told me that he was determined to fire Zeltzer, and it's not clear to me why this didn't happen."

Despite the anger over Berkovic's critical remarks, the IFA apparently prefers to take a conciliatory approach and will not pursue disciplinary action against him. The chairman of the youth committee at the IFA, Natan Slovtik, said yesterday that he plans to speak with Berkovic about his comments. "There's no doubt that Eyal does not really mean what he said," Slovtik explained. "It's ridiculous to speak this way about the work of the youth team," he added. "My only wish for the national team is that it comes close to the level of achievements of Israel's youth team."