Israeli Soccer Coach Feels at Home Down South - Just Don’t Call It Paradise

Ashdod chief Nir Klinger is striving to recreate his glory year a decade ago with Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Last week Maccabi Tel Aviv fans recalled that it was a decade to the day since coach Nir Klinger released Avi Nimni and Tal Banin in one of Israeli soccer’s most dramatic moves ever. That year was indeed special for Klinger, who led the club to the championship.

But Klinger hasn’t repeated the feat, achieving no more than a State Cup and a Champions League campaign. Later he worked in Cyprus before returning to Israel and coaching, with very modest success, Hapel Be’er Sheva and Hapoel Haifa.

Klinger attracts attention – and often criticism. He was brought to MS Ashdod with the hope of introducing something new and refreshing. For the first time in years, Ashdod might be aiming higher than the upper playoffs.

“I’m not into declarations and specific goals,” Klinger says. “Once I felt I had to respond to questions. Nowadays I don’t really care and say what I feel needs to be said.”

What are you aiming for this season at Ashdod?

“I dislike selling illusions or fooling people. You can’t alter concepts in one day. For many years people here thought and talked small, were under-ambitious and were happy to avoid relegation. My aim is to change this concept over the next three years. For now, contact with the community is our top priority – to widen the fan base and invest in youth. This isn’t an easy goal.”

The league is finally back this Saturday.

“We’re not used to such a long break of three months or more. There weren’t any Toto Cup games, so the break seemed even longer.

Are the teams better off without the Toto Cup?

“As a coach I think it’s an important and necessary cup, as opposed to what it was years ago. Last season, for example, even the big clubs wanted to succeed in the Toto Cup, and when my team Hapoel Haifa beat Maccabi Tel Aviv, the other guys were extremely disappointed.

“The same went for Be’er Sheva when we beat them in the finals. Beyond the prize money, the clubs want a title. The group stage is an excellent preparation for the league. It’s a shame it was canceled.”

Based on what you’ve said since arriving in Ashdod, it seems that compared to Hapoel Haifa, you’re in paradise.

“There’s no paradise in soccer, it simply doesn’t exist, definitely not in Israel. But there are good, warm people here, and excellent training facilities. Jacky Ben Zaken’s investment in the club as far at the youth teams and academy are concerned is really something unique.

“This European standard is rarely seen in Israel, and it doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s definitely good for education. Once such conditions exist we can make demands of the players. Excellent training conditions aren’t something you can take for granted.”

This season you were active in the summer transfer market, unlike former seasons.

“We tried to find the exact players we needed and brought in six good players, not 10 or 15 as other teams did. We brought in players that have experience in the Israeli league in order to save acclimation time. We wanted to minimize the risks and acclimation time. For the time being, it’s looking good.”

How will you deal with Jacky Ben Zaken’s tendency to interfere with coaches’ decisions?

“Let’s get this straight. Jacky has said very clear things on this issue. I told him I have no problem with him expressing his opinion. People are pretending that other owners don’t intervene. At every club I’ve worked I’ve talked with the owners and heard their opinions. Weak coaches are worried about the owners’ interference, but what, is having the owners talk behind their backs better?

“Jacky invests the money and he’s the boss; he’s entitled to voice his opinion. He knows a thing or two about the game, and I’ll take his opinion into account. But he knows that I’ll make the final calls and accepts that. We’re both dominant individuals, but everything will work out. I’m not worried. Ultimately it’s my decisions and my responsibility.”

How do you think the league will shape up this season?

“I think the league will be strong and interesting; all the teams have bolstered themselves with good players. The transfer market was more vibrant than in recent years, and some excellent players came home from Europe. I believe the top teams, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa, won’t have an easy time against the other teams. Many teams will aim for the top, and I expect it to be an exciting season with good soccer.”

One problem in Ashdod is the fans. How do you get them back in the seats? Did Euro 2013 change anything?

“The first things fans want are good conditions; the fans will return to the stands when the stadiums are good and the whole attitude is cultured. Players and stars come afterwards. A decent stadium and accessible parking are even more important. If you have stars but no parking or a run-down stadium, many fans won’t show up.”

You left Hapoel Haifa scarred, or do you stress your success in avoiding relegation?

“I finished a very good individual and team season; I always said we should count the points at the end of the season. I left with a good feeling that I helped some players progress and helped them move on to bigger clubs.

“During the season the press tried to say that I lost the locker room when, in reality, I had a really strong and determined locker room. Young journalists say all sorts of drivel like ‘the coach has lost the locker room’ or ‘the coach can’t influence the players any longer.’ Still, the press is part of the job, and you can handle it. I proved I can handle anything.”

Nir Keidar