Lower-tier Playoffs: Good for Drama, but Bring a Coffee

There seems to be something romantic, almost noble in following and identifying with clubs fighting for their lives against relegation.

The average Israeli soccer fan's attention this season wanders toward the lower-tier playoffs. It makes him feel good to suddenly take interest in Hapoel Be'er Sheva's coach, Elisha Levy, and his attack-minded substitutes, in Hapoel Haifa's string of victories, or in the tendency of Maccabi Netanya's defenders to join their attack.

There seems to be something romantic, almost noble in following and identifying with clubs fighting for their lives against relegation. Still, the truth is that this interest in the battle is something rather Pavlovian.

In those seasons when the title is secured weeks before the league is over, there is actually no other choice; it is one last thrill before the bathing season officially opens.

The invention of the lower-tier playoffs makes it that much easier. Like in olden times we can watch the bleeding contestants fight each other to the death.

Still, the lower-tier playoffs have their distinct charm. On the one hand, no team has pause to breathe. Every Saturday they play against rivals who need the points as desperately as they do. There are no games against teams who have already lost interest.

The game in Netanya, where coach Reuven Atar recorded his first victory with the local team, was actually the exception that proves the rule, and Ashdod's attitude is worthy of all superlatives. Ashdod proved its sportsmanship even if it eventually succumbed to a sublime touch by Kobi Dajani for the winning goal. Dajani proved once again that he is arguably one of the more consummate players in the Premier League.

On the other hand, the teams meet rivals who are usually on the same level. This is a good recipe for drama, but also for the most boring of encounters, such as the desperately inevitable 0-0 in the Be'er Sheva-Acre game. Moreover, clubs cannot be rewarded by gifts, such as an encounter with Hapoel Tel Aviv, which at present is a ghost team with a ghost coach and ghost players.

This, too, is balanced by the fact that the teams fighting against relegation are spared meeting with top teams in topform, such as Kiryat Shmona, or clubs on their way to their first title in a decade, such as Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Still, the bottom line is that the use of playoffs in soccer is both superficial and inappropriate. This might be fine in basketball, where it is hard to erase a huge gap in quality, even when a team has an off night. The Israeli league just isn't stable enough for holding playoffs.

Saturdays' matches included an important game – Sakhnin vs. RamatGan – that was postponed due to the rain, a referee (Eli Kachmon) who for some unknown reason and in complete contrast to the rules added more than a minute to the game in Be'er Sheva, allowing the host team two more chance to score.

Yet the prize for the most shameful act of the day should be awarded, once again, to the Israel Football Association, which rolled over and accepted the yearly show of insolence by the police, who ruled that Ramat Hasharon's home stadium cannot be used for the home team's game last night against Maccabi Tel Aviv. All of Ramat Hasharon's home games were played this year at the Grundman Stadium, but police deemed it too small for what could be Maccabi's coronation game.

So many things go wrong in Israeli soccer that it still seems best to play two or three regular rounds and leave playoffs to other sports.

the prize for the most shameful act of the day should be awarded, once again, to the Israel Football Association, which shamefully rolled over and acceptedthe yearly show of insolence by the police, who ruled that Ramat Hasharon'shome stadium cannot be used for the home team's game last night against MaccabiTel Aviv. All of Ramat Hasharon's home games were played this year at theGrundman Stadium, but police deemed it too small for what could be Maccabi's coronationgame.

So many things go wrong in Israeli soccer that it still seems best to playtwo or three regular rounds and leave playoffs to other sports.

Ilan Assayag