The Nike tournament in France, begining May 10, is considered the most prestigious European competition for under-16 year olds. During Purim Maccabi Haifa’s junior team won the national Nike tournament and will represent Israel in France, but Nadav Atar, one of the team’s stars, considered until several months ago an upcoming talent with nine youth league goals, will probably stay in Israel as his teammates fly abroad. In the last 10 games he lost his place in the starting lineup, and while in some of these games he came on as a substitute, in the State Cup final he stayed on the bench throughout the game.
Nadav, 15, is the younger son of former senior team coach and club legend Reuven Atar, who was sacked by Maccabi Haifa in mid-season. Nadav’s elder brother, 19-year-old Roee, was called up for the national youth team last year, after scoring 19 goals for Maccabi Haifa’s youth team. Reuven Atar’s predecessor at Maccabi Haifa realized Roee’s potential and insisted that he train and play with the senior team even before he turned 18. This season he trained with the senior team when his father was coach but didn’t get to play. He was later relegated to the youth team, but suddenly faced an unfamiliar situation: When he was fit − he suffered a six-week injury − he rarely made the starting 11. Within months he went from a starting player at the national team to barely a substitute in Maccabi Haifa’s youth team.
Could Reuven Atar’s sacking from Maccabi Haifa have affected the club’s attitude to his two sons?
A senior source familiar with the youth leagues says that “this story doesn’t surprise me at all. Yaniv Cohen and Shmulik Hanin are in charge of the club’s youth system and do as they wish, and club owner Ya’akov Shahar hardly has a say as to what goes on there. Maccabi Haifa’s youth teams win championships, yet only preciously few first-team players grew at the club. All the sons of the club’s past stars found themselves kicked out of the system at one stage or another.”
The change in the Atar brothers’ standing in the youth and junior teams began four months ago, shortly after their father was sacked from the senior team. Until that point Roee was a regular opener in the youth team. “Reuven is deeply hurt by what happened,” says a close friend of the family. “He feels that people are taking revenge on him through his children. Reuven talked to Shahar who promised to speak with Cohen and Hanin, but they were enraged that Reuven asked Shahar to intervene.”
Eli Ohana, the national youth team coach, has followed Roee’s progress for years and simply doesn’t understand what happened. “True, he was injured for a while,” he says, “but that still doesn’t explain the change in his position in the team. Roee is 19 and should be a leading player in the youth team, but that just isn’t happening.”
Ohana, who started watching Roee several years ago, wasn’t impressed at first, but then learned to appreciate his qualities. “At first glance you don’t see much, but then you realize he’s an excellent striker. He’s strong, technical and has a fantastic ability to score, as well as a good understanding of the game. I have no doubt he should be playing for a senior team in the Premier League.”
Alon Hazan, another former Maccabi Haifa star and now coach of the national U-17 team, is familiar with both Atar brothers. “Neither has their father’s style, but both are excellent soccer players. I’ve known Roee since he was 16 − he’s a fantastic, charismatic kid. Maccabi Haifa was right to sign him on a five-year contract. Nadav Atar is one of three sons of former Maccabi Haifa stars, together with Yaniv Cohen’s son Yam and Eyal Berkovic’s son Lior. All three are extremely talented.”
Eyal Berkovic, now head of the youth system in the Haifa suburb Nesher, doesn’t mince his words: “Atar’s childrens’ situation today isn’t good. Roee doesn’t get a chance to play in the youth team and Nadav is really suffering − and he’s a really talented kid. For some time now I’ve been urging Reuven and his wife Nomi to transfer the boys to my team at Nesher. If they were my children, that’s what I’d do in this situation. The kids must be happy − nothing else really matters.”
Berkovic, who in the past has severely criticized Maccabi Haifa’s attitude toward the club’s former stars, believes that “in recent years there has been some improvement. We do see more former players involved in the club, and that’s noteworthy. Still, in the case of Reuven’s sons we’re talking about the second generation of a great former player, a legend and symbol of the club. I’m not saying that the kids should play because of their father, but there’s no way they should suffer because they’re his children. Both kids are extremely talented and I have no doubt that if they were here, at Nesher, both would be very successful.”
Eli Ohana, until recently Berkovic’s nemesis, agrees: “Unfortunately, the attitude toward kids in the youth teams is a result of the attitude to their parents. I’m not saying that this is true in the current situation, but I’ve seen that happen many, many times. Children often gain from the fact that their father was a star, but that never lasts long. In Roee’s case, all I can say is that he’s a good player.”
A source in Maccabi Haifa said this week that “Roee Atar was affected by what happened to his father. He became sad and withdrawn.”
The source still admits that “Roee is a very talented player, who is also physically strong. That is not the case with Nadav, who still has to bulk up.”
Baruch Maman, another ex-star at Maccabi Haifa, says that he heard the same talk of his son, Hanan, now at Hapoel Tel Aviv. “When he was 13 or 14 years old Maccabi Haifa’s youth coaches told me that he wasn’t strong enough and wouldn’t develop into a senior player. Until then he was the leading scorer of the youth teams, but the coaches decided he wasn’t strong enough. I transferred him to Hapoel Haifa where he could grow and develop quietly. Today he plays for Hapoel Tel Aviv, and I’ve even heard that Maccabi Haifa is interested in his services.”
Maccabi Haifa is also interested in Ran Abukarat, the son of Avraham Abukarat, another legend of the 1980s. Abukarat junior also moved to Hapoel Haifa in his teens and was very successful.
Treating them right
Other sons of former stars didn’t make it at the team. Eitan Aharoni, the right back of the extremely successful 1980s team, says that when his son returned from Eindhoven at the age of 16, “I made the biggest mistake of sending him to Maccabi Haifa’s youth team. He was a star striker but never got the chance to prove himself, and the club didn’t allow him to move to Hapoel or Maccabi Tel Aviv who were interested in his services. Today he’s 27 and plays for Kafr Kana.”
While sources in Maccabi Haifa say that “the fact that so many sons of former stars didn’t succeed only proves that our judgment is completely objective,” it still seems strange that some of these, such as the sons of Maman and Abukarat, succeeded in fulfilling their potential at other teams.
As for Atar’s sons, they’re already wanted by the two Netanya teams. “I wish both of them would come to Maccabi Netanya,” says the team’s general director, Kobi Beladev. “I know that Roee is extremely talented and could join our senior team. Nadav is also very good. I’d be happy to take both of them.”
Arik Izkovich, chairman of Beitar Tubruk (formerly Beitar Netanya), would also like to have both players. “I’ve been grooming players for 30 years now,” he says. “Maccabi Haifa’s senior team has more players who grew in Tubruk − Eyal Golasa, Alon Turgeman, Hen Ezra − than players who graduated through their youth system. I can tell you that both Roee and Nadav Atar will be future Premier League players if they are treated in the right manner. I can guarantee that if they come to Tubruk, they will end up being Premier League players.”
In response, Shmulik Hanin of Maccabi Haifa’s youth team said “Talk to the spokesperson, it’s a sensitive issue.” His colleague Yaniv Cohen responded with the exact same words.
Maccabi Haifa’s spokesperson said: “All the talk of discrimination is groundless. All the youth team players are assessed according to their ability, talent and physical strength.”
Reuven Atar refused to respond.