Tabib’s Headaches, Gaydamak’s Legacy: Beitar Jerusalem’s New Owner Is Inheriting a Troubled History

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The saga appears to have ended - Eli Tabib will be the new owner of Beitar Jerusalem, replacing Arcadi Gaydamak.

Even before the Israel Football Association has officially sanctioned the transfer of ownership, Tabib this weekend already made his first move, signing Hapoel Ramat Gan coach Eli Cohen on a contract said to be worth $100,000 a year.

Cohen, 52, began his coaching career at Hapoel Rat Gan in 1998, and after a brief stint at Maccabi Herzliya returned to earn the club its first State Cup title in 2003, only to be fired the following year. Following periods coaching Hapoel Holon and Hapoel Ra’anana ‏(which he took into the top flight Premier League‏) and Hapoel Acre, he returned for a third bittersweet stint at Ramat Gan in 2012, winning the State Cup for the second time in the club’s history but also being relegated to the second-tier National League.

On Thursday Tabib, who left no outstanding debts at his former club Hapoel Tel Aviv, received the green light from the courts to take over Beitar Jerusalem.

His first headache is dealing with the club’s accumulated debts, said to be in the NIS 11-12 million range. Tabib has already agreed to foot the bill for the club’s employees’ wages for April and May, which totaled NIS 2.5 million, and he will also have to cut back on expenses. He plans to present a relatively low annual budget, with the intention of balancing the books within two years.

Tabib’s plans include income tax rebates totaling some NIS 7 million plus extra income for the club from increased season-ticket sales. He also plans to appoint his daughter in a financial managerial position at the club, and bring former players Nir Sivilia and David Amsalem into the coaching team.

Tabib knows that in order to maintain the team’s home fan base, he has to both nurture homegrown players and sign some outside players from other teams. He is due to meet a number of players in the coming days with an eye on securing their services.

His main problem is with the local players - notably captain Amit Ben Shushan and midfielder Kobi Moyal, whose contracts Tabib does not intend to improve. Ariel Harush will remain between the goalposts on an unaltered contract, but Haim Megralashvili, Matan Barashi and the Argentine Dario Fernandez are expected to demand improved conditions, which the owner will reject.

Tabib will, however, probably offer promising young midfielder Ofir Kriaf better terms, in a bid to secure a long-term contract with the club.

An era of extravagance

As Tabib’s stewardship begins, local soccer pundits are learning the lessons of a turbulent period under Gaydamak. The eight-year Gaydamak era will be best remembered for the coaching merry-go-round, millions of shekels spent on two Premier League titles, and his woefully failed attempt to run for mayor.

“I’m probably the only one who didn’t make a cent out of Gaydamak,” former team star and coach Eli Ohana said this week.

“I hardly had a chance to get to know Arcadi,” said Ohana, head coach at the club when Gaydamak took over in autumn 2005 and now the national junior team coach.

Together with Uri Malmilian, Ohana is the soccer icon most identified with Beitar. When Gaydamak took over, he was due to begin his third campaign as coach, and had built a young team featuring prospects such as Aviram Bruchian, Maor Melikson, Shlomi Arbeitman and Amit Ben Shushan. But the owner didn’t give him a chance, soon saying in a newspaper interview that Ohana “lacks leadership.”

“I quit immediately after that comment,” Ohana relates. “I couldn’t work with someone who talks like that about me.”

Now Ohana may be regretting that decision. “When you look at the amount of money Gaydamak poured into the club and what type of players I could have brought into the team, you realize that you missed a chance to win at least two Premier League titles,” he said. “I can’t say I don’t regret it. But I did what I felt was right. I wasn’t prepared to let someone who had just arrived at the club talk about me like that.”

During Gaydamak’s first season at Beitar, some of the top players were making hundreds of thousands of dollars a season, while some of the foreign players signed for sums previously unheard of in Israeli soccer. The club also had four different coaches in the first year, including Dutchman Ton Caanen and France’s Luis Fernandez.

Next in line was former Argentina and Tottenham maestro Osvaldo Ardiles, who had already coached in the English Premier League. But with his gentlemanly manner and un-Beitar-like habit of cycling to work instead of turning up in a shiny black sports car, “Ossie” was never cut out for the role. Despite the huge sum Gaydamak paid him, Ardiles didn’t last long.

Gaydamak then turned to a salt-of-the-earth Jerusalemite - former team goalkeeper Yossi Mizrahi, who had already coached several local teams and even managed to win the Premier League in his first season at Beitar. But he wasn’t a glittering enough character for the oligarch owner, and was also fired within a year of being appointed.

Under Gaydamak, the team’s annual budget reached a whopping NIS 150 million. “He was also handing out donations to all sorts of charities and became extremely popular as a result,” Ohana recounts.

But in the words of the team’s midfielder Kobi Moyal, “In Israel, when they see somebody give, they don’t say ‘thank you’ - they always want more. That’s the mentality here. Even the fans felt he owed them something.”

“I arrived at the club the season after that title. It was a fantastic campaign, and we won the [league and cup] double,” recalls the team’s next coach, Itzhak Shum, who had never had such a large budget at his disposal. “Money isn’t everything. Many teams are built around a large budget but don’t win anything in the end,” he notes.

But the watershed event, in retrospect, was losing out to the Polish champion in the Champions League qualifiers the following season. After a 2-1 victory in the opening leg at the Teddy Stadium, the team fell apart and lost the return leg 5-0.

Along with Gaydamak’s fading dream of sitting in the VIP box with the owners of Europe’s top clubs, Gaydamak’s interest in Beitar Jerusalem waned from that point on.

“His main motivation was to receive legitimacy,” says an associate of the oligarch. “He didn’t like the fact that people considered him to be a criminal. He wanted to be seen as a good - and more importantly, a legitimate - person, which explains his donations to hospitals and Jewish organizations. He wanted to get elected to the Knesset, and if that wasn’t possible, to become mayor of Jerusalem. Arcadi saw Beitar as a platform to reach other, more esteemed positions.”

In Shum’s words, “It was never the same again.”

Seven coaches later - David Amsalem, Uri Malmilian, Ronny Levy, David Amsalem ‏(again‏), Yuval Naim, Hanan Azulay and Eli Cohen - it’s Eli Tabib’s time to pick up the pieces.

Jerusalem’s new owner, Eli Tabib. Credit: Sharon Bukov

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