For most of the Premier League soccer season, Beitar Jerusalem coach Eli Cohen was considered a magician, and rightfully so. Before the season, the team had been dismissed as being in a state of rebuilding, fighting for survival in the top division. Yet it became a huge surprise.
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Cohen had been confident he could lead Beitar Jerusalem into the upper playoffs, even when it was still in the lower half of the table. He certainly managed to get more out of every player on the short-staffed and unimpressive roster at his disposal than any of them were really worth.
Haim Megrelashvili, for example, turned into a defender who's mentioned for a spot on the national team. Eran Levi finally began to realize the potential people thought he had when he was coming up through the youth ranks.
The problem is that along the way, Cohen's magic evidently had an expiration date.
Many tend to wrongly think that the arrival of the two Chechen players, Dzhabrail Kadiyev and Zaur Sadayev, and the disturbances that followed their arrival, is the reason for Beitar's implosion. There is no question that the changes did constitute a complex shakeup.
However, it is exactly at such moments that one discovers what the rest of the players are really made up of and what their abilities are. And that is far from being impressive or promising.
In the 68th minute of Sunday's loss against Maccabi Haifa, trailing 3-1, Cohen inserted Sadayev into the game, and the Haifa fans, who never paid any attention to nationality or religion, welcomed him with thunderous applause. They were happy of course that Sadayev came in at the expense of the hated Eran Levy, but they also made sure to mock the Neanderthal wing among Beitar fans, who are still living in darkness.
This tribute served to remind that Beitar received backing from almost every possible direction in Israel in its holy war against "La Familia," the gang of racist Beitar fans. Politicians stepped up to show support. The police pitched in. The state prosecutor buckled down. The Israel Football Association gave its backing.
Only one element, the most important of them all, didn't pitch in - the players of Beitar itself.
With a little more effort, commitment and maturity, they could have changed the picture. They could have eradicated the horrible argument that adding the Muslims destroyed the season. It did no such thing. The flight from responsibility, the fear, the craven capitulation and the inability to give just a little bit more on the pitch is what did the greatest amount of damage.
Deteriorating performance and mental weakness are what sent Beitar back to where it was when the season opened, but the team is so near the upper playoff bracket - just two points behind sixth-place Ramat Hasharon - that it can't seem to recognize the new reality.
So within Beitar, each game ends with talk about still being able to punch a ticket to the top-six club, and they don't notice that the pace at which they're collecting points and the quality of play are returning Beitar precisely into the lower playoff bracket.
With such negative momentum, even a wizard like Cohen probably couldn't save the team.
Maccabi Haifa, in contrast, continues to amaze with its mental strength and its ability to rebound from a horrendous start to the season. Although it has tradition and a responsible owner on its side, the main reason it is doing so well is because its wise head coach, Arik Benado, found a way to make his players give much more than they really had.
As nearly always, it's all about magic.