The fact that the Israel Football Association announced on Sunday afternoon that national team coach Eli Guttman will continue in the role for the Euro 2016 qualifying tournament came as no surprise, despite the Avi Nimni PR circus.
The search committee that was due to formally convene in the coming days instead met informally, and together the members decided to scrap the committee and instead recommend to the IFA’s executive, which meets next week, to approve the extension of Guttman’s contract for two years.
It was supposed to be a simple, quiet, very ordinary, boring process. The IFA set up the search committee to find the next national team coach. It was to meet once or twice and then release the expected declaration that Guttman would remain at the post. Avi Nimni entered the picture, but to no avail.
No one in the IFA appreciated the degree to which this appointment process would garner press attention. Nimni, one of Israel’s soccer greats, entered the void with his record of coaching − not very successfully − Maccabi Tel Aviv for two years and serving as a successful agent. He turned coverage of the process from sleepy to hyperactive. Plus he did it with a lot of power, sophistication, creativity and exceptional ability to persuade.
It all started after the final whistle of the game between Israel and Northern Ireland at the Ramat Gan Stadium in October. While Guttman was analyzing the disappointing draw during a press conference, IFA chairman Avi Luzon and his deputy, Stern Haluba, were sitting in the VIP box as usual, eating their hearts out. They were joined by the chairman’s brother, Amos Luzon; Yossi Benayoun, the squad’s captain who was not even on the roster that night; and another guest − Nimni.
Out of desperation, Luzon jokingly suggested to Benayoun that he retire forthwith and take on the role of coaching the national team. Benayoun smiled and responded that he would agree on condition that Nimni be his assistant. “Let’s sign on it now,” Luzon kidded. Before matters got too serious, Benayoun made it clear that for the time being he had no intention of retiring and that he was about to sign with Queen’s Park Rangers − as eventually happened, albeit much later.
It seems, however, that Haluba and Nimni missed the joke. Nimni, one of the best-connected people in Israeli sports journalism, started repeating over and over to his associates that he had received an offer to coach the national squad alongside another coach. Sometimes he said the other person was Eli Ohana, sometimes Benayoun.
Unsurprisingly, the story eventually leaked to the press. When Nimni was asked about it on one of the many TV panels he appears on, he acted astonished and said he had no idea what they were talking about.
At the same time, he and Haluba continued to meet. Nimni laid out his personal manifesto about the national team, claiming it needed young coaches, former great players who are household names. He explained to the IFA vice-chairman how it important it was to restore the fans’ faith in the national squad, stressing that he had the ability to make those changes. Haluba, who was one of the greatest supporters of Guttman’s initial appointment, saw how over the course of the campaign the fans were drifting away. Nimni’s offer charmed him.
Haluba then raised a dilemma before Nimni: The former star is an active players’ agent, which would create a major conflict of interests. Nimni was prepared for that eventuality, and explained he would transfer his share of the agency to his partner and disassociate himself from it entirely. Haluba was convinced.
Anyone who followed the Israeli sports press over the last few weeks would conclude that he could congratulate Nimni on the appointment. The conflict of interests issue did come up, but only superficially. The TV panels in which Nimni participates on the cable sports channel constituted the tip of the arrow, as participants competed with each other to bestow upon him as many titles as possible and be the most gung-ho supporter of his candidacy. On the Sports Channel’s year-end program, they even seated Nimni alongside Ohana, and host Niv Raskin congratulated the two and spoke to them as if they had already been appointed.
Freezing out critics?
Nimni’s rival, veteran agent Dudu Dahan, wanted to be interviewed on the matter recently, but no one wanted to listen. Dahan complained last week that given Nimni’s control of the press, no one would give his criticism a hearing.
“After I met Eli Guttman at the team’s hotel there was an earthquake in the media,” Dahan told me. “I only sat with him, and everyone harshly criticized it. Now everyone is talking about Nimni as a candidate to coach the national team and almost no one talks about his being an agent. Imagine them offering me to serve as the squad’s technical director. You think it would pass quietly?”
He insisted the press would jump on such an announcement − the hiring of an players’ agent to work for the national squad − noting that he has a professional coaching certificate while NImni does not.
While Nimni was running between TV studios and managing his own well-timed PR campaign, Guttman sat at home and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “At first Eli was sure it was a media joke that Nimni was in on,” says a close associate of Guttman. “He never thought it would turn into something serious.”
Guttman has already begun developing his next two-year work plan and believes he learned enough lessons from the failed World Cup qualification campaign to make the next one successful. However, with the name Nimni popping up on all the TV sports programs, he started to feel the strain.
Still, Guttman can relax. Nimni won’t be the national team coach, not even its assistant coach. But with the help of the huge campaign he recently generated, he turned himself into the most powerful, popular and well-connected agent. Which player will be able to say no to an agent who in another year or two may be the national team coach? Someone else would have to have paid quite a sum for such a PR campaign. Nimni got it for free.
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