Soccer / Premier League

Mission Accomplished: Beitar Fans Force Out Coach

Eli Cohen’s sacking from Beitar Jerusalem was the direct result of pressure from La Familia extremists.

Saying that a coach has the full support of the club owner has become one of the most used − and fearful − clichés in Israeli soccer. Only a week ago, Beitar Jerusalem’s owner Eli Tabib stressed that he was pleased with the work of coach Eli Cohen. On Tuesday, Cohen arrived for a practice session at Beitar’s training ground in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood only to be told he was sacked.

“It’s his right, he’s the owner and he can do as he wishes,” Cohen told his friends. “But coming out in public support of the coach, and declaring that I wasn’t the problem, and then sacking me? I suddenly became the problem?”

In fact, Cohen, who led Beitar to only 14 points in 10 outings, faced problems from the very start of the season. Tabib’s conduct wasn’t much help. The former Hapoel Tel Aviv and Hapoel Kfar Sava owner is officially the owner, but the chief shareholders and owners, as far as daily management, are the members of La Familia, the club’s extremist fans’ organization. Tabib succumbed to their wishes from day one.

He arrived after La Familia managed to oust former owner Arcadi Gaydamak and general manager Itzik Kornfein, and was indebted to the organization. “Whoever invited La Familia members to official club events and supported fans who were banned from games and sent to house arrest due to hooliganism, cannot complain to anyone about the consequences,” one of Beitar’s senior officials last season told Haaretz. “Tabib’s decisions are dictated by the fans’ pressure.”

Tabib clarified on Tuesday that it was his decision to sack Cohen and that he was not influenced by the fans. Still, one suspects it isn’t exactly so. Fan pressure led to Tabib’s leaving Hapoel Tel Aviv and he is wary of the possibility of history repeating itself. Club officials say that many fans called and threatened to stop coming to games, including the upcoming encounter with Maccabi Tel Aviv next Sunday at Teddy Stadium. Tabib, who probably feared a serious loss of income, preferred to sack Cohen before the game.

Still, the manner in which he carried out his decision, surprised club officials.

“Tabib should have showed some respect. He should have phoned Eli Cohen and talked to him,” one player said. “It’s very disrespectful to have a representative fire him. Cohen was the head coach, not a junior employee. Besides, Tabib himself said that he believed in Cohen and that he wasn’t the problem. This is very strange and unprofessional. With all the trouble we had in the summer, the team is in a better position than we expected. Why was it so urgent to rock the boat? Was it in order to placate the fans who don’t like Cohen?”

Cohen too, made several mistakes. He allowed Tabib and his former representative at the club, Haim Revivo, to interfere in professional matters. In retrospect, Cohen’s weakness contributed to his short term at the club. If he had stood up to Tabib and Revivo and threatened to leave if certain players weren’t released, or signed, he would have been conceived as stronger. Since he never did so, he was seen as obedient − and the fans were well aware of that.

“Tabib treated Cohen unfairly, but Cohen knew exactly where he was coming to and who he would work with,” a source close to Tabib told Haaretz. “Tabib didn’t arrive at the beginning of the season from nowhere. Everyone was well aware of his style, and Cohen took that into consideration. He wanted to work at a large club, and was forced to make compromises.”

In closed discussions Cohen admitted that the team was weaker than he expected. “This isn’t the team I wanted to see. I don’t believe it can improve with this squad,” he said.

Cohen tried to bring in new players, but was forced to maneuver between Tabib and Revivo. One example is his agreement to accept Haim Revivo’s brother, David, as a squad player. “David Revivo was forced on Cohen,” one of the coach’s friends told Haaretz. “He had no choice, but he told David that he wouldn’t be in the opening lineup. David answered that there’s no problem and that he would accept any decision, but caused endless trouble in the dressing room.”

Tabib and Haim Revivo forced Cohen to bring in Ibrahim Bangura and Andres Tunez, but didn’t let him keep Steven Cohen, one player the coach actually wanted in the team. The saga surrounding David Revivo was the final, dissonant, chord of Cohen’s term at Beitar. The fans were opposed to Cohen’s appointment from the word go. “The problems between Cohen and the fans began before the first game of the season,” a Beitar official told Haaretz. “The fans swore at him even before he lost one game. Beitar fans are spoiled; they prefer a well-known, successful coach. They regarded Cohen as an undistinguished coach of smaller clubs. At first, they didn’t want to oppose Tabib, but then they targeted Cohen and did their best to lead to his sacking.”

On Tuesday, their mission was finally accomplished.

Arnon Bussani