“It doesn’t matter who coaches the national team, we won’t get anywhere,” a senior member of the national squad told me recently. "The problem with the team isn’t the coach, but the Israeli soccer players’ culture, which hinders their professional ability. The coach can make this or that mistake, but the main problem is the player who, with few exceptions, will never be European in terms of his attitude."
These harsh words were backed up by a former national team coach: “Could it be that all the coaches in Israeli soccer are no good? Maybe the problem is the players’ amateurish approach to the game. Look how many have left for European teams in recent years and how many returned with the same abilities. The only thing that grew was their bank accounts.”
National team head coach Eli Guttman has a proven track record in the Premier League, with two championships and two State Cups to his name. He has made more than a few mistakes during the present World Cup qualifying campaign, but they are not to blame for the disappointing results. Deep in his heart, Guttman knows that the problem is the quality of his players.
“As long as the Israeli player doesn’t change his attitude, he won’t improve,” the national team coach has said in private conversations. “Nowadays the players walk around with a battery of journalists behind him. Many players feel indebted to the local media and they always feel pressure or fear. They are practically prisoners to the media. In Europe it doesn’t work like that: It’s a different world.”
Bnei Yehuda is a prime example of such conduct. Until a month ago, everyone slammed its coach, Dror Kashtan. The media, and especially the local commentators, backed the disgusting behavior of some Bnei Yehuda fans who called for his head. They didn’t realize – or didn’t want to realize – why the coach insisted on leaving Argentinian midfielder Pedro Galvan, one of the best foreign players in Israel right now, on the bench. “They have no idea what professionalism is. Did any of them watch the team practices?” Kashtan asked, complaining at the time.
Club chairman Moshe Damaio wholeheartedly supported the coach's controversial decision. “Names don’t mean anything to Dror. Pedro’s off form and has been playing poorly recently. Wait another month and you’ll see what he’s capable of,” he promised at the time. And he was right. Galvan has starred in Bnei Yehuda’s last three wins.
For those wondering what made the coach bring him back, the answer is simple: Galvan began training seriously again and lost weight. But from the journalists’ point of view, Kashtan should have kept him in the team all along because of his reputation.
I bumped into Damaio last week at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium, where he had come to support Beitar’s Jerusalem’s anti-racism campaign, and reminded him of the pounding Kashtan got from the press for benching Galvan and the praise heaped on him now that the team is doing well.
“You don’t know the media?” he asked wondrously. “One week you’re a king, the next week a nobody. How can they slam Dror for not picking Galvan? Is there anyone who knows the players’ form better than the coach?”
None of the journalists who cover Bnei Yehuda attended the training sessions a month and a half ago to gauge Galvan’s form. You didn’t need a scale to see that he had put on a few too many kilograms. Yet it was the coach who took all the heat. And the star player? He can grow fatter, take it easy during practice, and no one will care. In any case, the coach will take the heat.
Some coaches flatter their leading players. There are those who cut their players some slack and others who emphasize discipline. The latter type – such as Kashtan – usually take the heat.
Similarly, many local journalists didn’t take Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Oscar Garcia seriously at first. Then came a few good results and – presto! – the man’s a genius. Suddenly the cowardly coach who fields a team with three defensive midfielders has a brilliant footballing brain.
Two months ago, the coach decided to drop his Spanish forward Gonzalo Garcia (no relation). “What did he do to deserve such punishment?” many people wondered. The player was unhappy that he had been placed on the wing, and he told his coach so in no uncertain terms. Oscar Garcia could easily have ignored the uproar, restrained himself and let the matter pass. But no – he did exactly what a professional coach should do, and the player has hardly seen the field for two months now as Maccabi made its way to the top of the league table.
Israeli soccer players are incapable of meeting the standards of their European counterparts, yet it’s their coaches who get blamed when things go wrong.
Following the 4-0 defeat in the local derby last week, Hapoel Tel Aviv players couldn’t stop talking – anonymously, of course – against their now ex-coach Yossi Abukasis. None of them thought that their poor performance on the field warranted their keeping their mouths shut.
“The Israeli player has never blamed himself and will never blame himself,” a Premier League coach complained recently.
When Maccabi Netanya coach Tal Banin substituted two of his leading players, Achmad Saba’a and Kobi Dajani, the media pulled out the big guns. Sure, Banin is not the easiest of men and definitely no compromiser, but his players relate that he is indeed professional in his approach. “I don’t have a bad word to say about him, even when I’m not in the team,” says one. “I’m sure his considerations are professional and not personal.”
Yet not a negative word appeared in the press about Saba’a and Dajani. In the meantime, Banin has brought them back into the lineup and the team hasn’t lost in seven games. Banin took care of matters in his own way. From his perspective he’s a professional – but from the local media’s perspective he’s problematic.
In short, the Israeli soccer player is in love with his own ego, cannot take criticism and is never guilty of anything. In many cases, journalists also serve as their advisers and psychologists.
It’s no surprise, then, that so many players return from Europe with their tails between their legs. Kashtan, Garcia and others like them will work according to the book, but the young amateurs won’t get far. What a shame.