Soccer / The Re-greening of Maccabi Haifa

Could it be that the good old days are returning under Arik Benado's leadership?

Last week’s State Cup game between Beitar Jerusalem and Maccabi Haifa ended with a refreshing sight rarely seen in Israeli soccer. Green-clad fans sung their hearts out and chanted their love for their team, calling the players to approach the stands and thank them for the fine display of soccer they had given just minutes earlier, with three excellent goals into the host's net.

From the top of the stand it was a marvelous sight. About 3,000 Haifa supporters, who in recent weeks have become used to winning games with fine performances, didn’t even think about leaving the visiting fans’ enclosure. The fact that the police held them back until all the potentially violent Beitar fans had left didn’t seem to bother them one iota.

In particular, the Haifa fans chanted the name of veteran team captain Yaniv Katan, who has flourished since Arik Benado took over as coach in November, when the team placed next to last in the Premier League table. Now Haifa places second from top, behind runaway leader Maccabi Tel Aviv, but with a superior record over the past four months.

The fans kept on chanting their heroes’ names long after they had left for the locker room and called them back for an encore, even though most of the players were by then half-naked.

“All the team – come here,” they hollered, and the reverberations could be felt deep throughout the stadium. Katan cooperated: He asked his teammates to go out again to meet the crowd, and they did so willingly, linking hands as they ran toward their adoring fans.

One cannot but wonder if former coach Reuven Atar was watching, and what went through his mind at the time.

What has happened to Maccabi Haifa in the past months? What brought about the 180-degree turnaround in the team’s fortunes? There are several reasons, but first of all it must be said: Maccabi Haifa looks like a happy team in recent months.

There was never any doubt about the players’ talent and potential. Atar will also admit that. So why is it that only since Benado’s appointment has that potential expressed itself? From game to game they get better, and now remind one of the Maccabi Haifa lineups of bygone days who played a creative brand of soccer that also produced results and titles. Could it be that the good old days are returning?

Benado’s greatest accomplishment, beyond the amazing results and success rate, is returning the team’s deterrent factor. Maccabi Haifa under Atar was just another team, which regularly lost vital points against relatively weak opposition because the other teams were simply not scared of them. As Haifa lost its deterrence factor, so Atar lost the locker room and a strange feeling of trepidation permeated Kiryat Eliezer: the previously unimaginable chance that Maccabi Haifa could be relegated at the end of the season to the second-tier National League.

The main difference between Benado and Atar is in their approach. While Atar, a team icon in the late 1980s and early 1990s whose name was once synonymous with the club, was an arrogant, haughty, distant manager, Benado is the players’ friend and in that way manages to get the best out of them.

Benado was the most capped national team player with 94 appearances, who went through the ranks at Maccabi Haifa as a player and was appointed youth team coach at the beginning of the season. He lacked the experience of training a senior team – but he did know how to take the collection of broken players he inherited, pick up the pieces and bring back their motivation and self-confidence. He put the color back in the players’ cheeks.

This is especially true of Yaniv Katan. The captain never got along with Atar, and his midfield play had become uninspiring. The difference on the field since Benado’s arrival couldn’t be starker. Katan is back to his best form, tackling hard for every ball, setting up goals and scoring a few himself, prompting his players and leading by example. Benado apparently realized that if he hands Katan the keys and trusts him more, remuneration will come quickly.

To Benado’s way of thinking, his relationship with Katan was something to emphasize. They confer a lot during team practices in front of the other players, and the pair also holds many private conversations. The players even joke nowadays that the name Katan should be added to the sign on the coach’s office door. Even during games, Benado often calls Katan over for a quick parley, and the mutual admiration and respect is obvious to all. In short, Benado has brought back Katan’s joie de vivre.

Benado also expressed total confidence in the roster he inherited. During the January transfer window, team owner Ya’akov Shahar made a certain sum available for strengthening the squad and told Benado the choice of players is his. But the coach, who on taking up the appointment said “this is a championship roster with good players in every position,” turned down the offer. He knew which players he already had at his disposal, and that if he could get the best out of them he wouldn’t need to delve into the transfer market.

Benado’s success has also saved Shahar, who originally had designs on Ran Ben-Shimon – coach of last season’s Cinderella team Kiryat Shmona – to replace Atar. It would have cost about NIS 5 million to get him out of his contract.

Shahar even sent Maccabi Haifa’s legal adviser to Cyprus twice. He would have compensated Ben-Shimon’s current team, AEK Larnaca, half a million euros and signed the coach on a far fatter contract than Benado agreed to. But that deal fell through, and the rest, as they say, is history.  

Sharon Bokov