Hapoel Tel Aviv chairman Haim Ramon, who controls 50 percent of the club and has full management rights, decided to speak out on Sunday. In fact, the former MK didn’t just talk – he went on the offensive and put all the cards on the table. The criticism he has taken of late from the media, his partners and the team’s supporters drove him to convene a press conference, where he opened his heart.
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Ramon spoke for nearly two hours. He opened with a long monologue, revealed financial data and broke the mold of club chairmen by not evading any of the journalists’ questions. He made clear his plans for this month’s player-transfer window, talked about the club’s financial plight and described how, over and again, he was persuaded to dig deeper into his own pockets. From his description, it appears one of the supposedly richest clubs in Israel is run as a poor one.
“Everyone told me it was a mistake, to be careful,” Ramon said. “I knew to never expect anything in soccer, but I came because uncountable friends and fans called on me to save Hapoel. The previous owner [Eli Tabib] told me he was going to dismantle the club. Everyone told me ,‘We’ll help you. We’ll give you money.’ They all promised, but all that remained was air. There was a need for 4.5 million shekels [$1.3 million], and I realized that it was up to me to provide personal guarantees on the money if the team was to start the season.”
Ramon ended up providing personal guarantees to the tune of 3.5 million shekels. The former minister and Histadrut labor federation head, who took over in the summer of 2012, repeatedly claimed that certain people had made empty promises of support.
“This season alone, we brought in 14 new players,” Ramon told reporters. “I approached businesspeople, supporters who promised they would help, and asked them to open their pockets. I told them, ‘It’s your love, help us,’ but nothing happened. They spend four times as much on their summer vacations. Everyone looked for an excuse not to contribute. The shareholders have no management rights – but there were meetings and updates, and there wasn’t a decision that they didn’t know about. They pressed me to sign [coach Ran] Ben Shimon, [Gil] Vermouth and [Itay] Shechter – but they didn’t find the money. They claimed they didn’t know Ben Shimon or Shechter would be so expensive? Rubbish! They all knew about the cost – in fact, I was the only one against signing them, because of the price.
“Ever since I’ve been at Hapoel, I’ve been running around trying to raise funds,” said Ramon. “I don’t need the publicity – I came to Hapoel out of love. I’ve been carrying this yolk by myself. Everyone gave me advice that cost money, but didn’t bring the money themselves. None of the millionaire supporters have taken on an obligation.”
Ramon related that he didn’t want to fire former coach Yossi Abuksis last season. “It’s more money, and I don’t believe in a coach for one season,” he said, explaining he only did so “because Abuksis stopped believing in his ability to save Hapoel Tel Aviv. My feeling was that Yossi was waiting for me to fire him.
“Everyone recommended to me to bring in Ben Shimon, that he would build a team for the long-term. I told them that the costs are high and the coffers empty, but everyone told me that if Ben Shimon comes, so will many businessmen. I believed them. I thought this would make others open their pockets, that we would reach Europe.”
Above all, Ramon is angry with the fans’ association that represents the club’s supporters. “Their behavior is scaring away serious investors,” he charged.
“I used my connections to arrange loans from a financial body,” he continued, “No one else would have received such sums in the millions. I got them on the strength of my word, and Ran [Ben Shimon] got all he wanted.”
Ramon saw the mistakes of the coach in whom he invested four million shekels over two years, and told him so. But Ben Shimon continued, unperturbed. “It’s unprofessional to tell the coach how to do his job,” Ramon pointed out, “but an owner who understands something about soccer can express his views in one-on-one conversations. I speak my mind, and have the right to speak freely. I work voluntarily and this is my payment – the ability to speak directly with the coach. He has to listen to me, but not to act accordingly. I can only dictate finances – not tactics.”
When Shechter was signed, it was obvious that the outlay outweighed the club’s resources, Ramon said. “The pressure was enormous. The supporters asked me to raise the price of entrance tickets by 8 percent to cover the acquisition. The fans raised 20,000 shekels as a donation. The total amount of money donated to the club last year was a laughable 375,000 shekels. To my regret, I capitulated to the pressure and bought Shechter. He’s an excellent player, but the costs are great.
“All the signings brought about a deficit of 10-12 million shekels,” added Ramon. “That’s our current deficit.”
Ramon believes the economic reality will bring about a change in how the club is managed. “The age of innocence is over for me,” he said. “From now on, there will be only cutbacks. I will even veto spending tens of thousands of shekels for a player. They told me there was a kid, a special talent who’s going to be the next big thing, Sagiv Yehezkel – we need 50,000 shekels to buy him, and it’s a great deal for us. I refused. I told them, ‘You want him – bring us a contribution.’
“Somebody donated the money in installments, and we bought the player. From now on, that’s how things will be managed.
“The club’s financial situation obliges me to take responsibility,” concluded Ramon. “There will be no more signings, no more expenses; just the selling of players. The aim is that by the end of the season, the deficit will be cut to 5 million shekels. Whoever doesn’t like it can leave. I received a club in pieces, in debt and with no players, and I’ve improved it. Nowadays, all the players are signed on long-term contracts, including the youth talents. Every player that leaves will mean more money for Hapoel.”