Soccer / Premier League / The Successful Candidate Will Bring a Rich Friend

Some say fund-raising was Tal Banin's ticket to saving his job at Maccabi Netanya, but he's not alone.

Almost every soccer coach in Israel's professional ranks has a permanent sponsor to take along for negotiations with potential employers, according to the former owner of Maccabi Netanya.

"Over the years, Israel coaches have developed good ties with businessmen and they are capable of recruiting a sponsor or a handsome donation to the team they want to join or are moving to," says Asher Alon, who now owns Ra'anana of the second-tier National League. "In the past it was exceptional, but now it's part of the Israeli soccer landscape."

What about scouting? Looking at one's record? Minimal professional behavior? Alon says these are not necessarily part of the process that leads to the hiring of Israeli soccer coaches.

Tal Banin secured a donation worth hundreds of thousands of shekels to Maccabi Netanya through his business friend Eli Segev. Netanya officials insist that this has no connection to Banin's remaining on the job despite going eight games without a win.

Regardless, Banin is really not alone in this respect. In recent years, an increasing number of coaches come to the negotiating table with the promise of obtaining tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of shekels for the club.

"Usually, the donation is equal to the salary cost of the coach and even a little more," says Yuval Naim, a former coach for Beitar Jerusalem.

In order to emerge as strong clubs economically, Premier League teams need every shekel to have the league's budget control authority pass their budgets at the beginning of the season.

"The rules changed because most of the teams are encountering economic hardships," says Naim, who has been trying to find himself a new team since leaving Beitar less than a year ago.

"Management makes a a simple calculation: Better a coach who is not quite as good but who comes with a lot of money," he says. "When I compete against another coach who comes with a sponsor, he has an advantage over me. Once there was a time when there was no such thing as a coach losing 10 games and keeping his job. Teams want to fire them and can't. I have nothing against Banin, but Netanya is the best example. It's impossible to fire him - he looks after a lot of money, and with all due respect you can't ignore that. In the past it would not have happened."

'Everybody's happy'

Israeli soccer sources cite the example of one coach who came to the negotiating table with a Premier League team having a sponsorship promise in hand. "He had a great connection with a car importer, and he managed to recruit the company as the team's main sponsor," says a team source from that time. "Their mutual interests were met - the coach gets a job, the team is able to fund his salary as well as another acquisition, and everybody's happy."

Another coach recently signed with a National League team and brought on board a donor who transfered to the team a sum of money that covered the cost of the salary of the coach, a close associate of his, including a bonus for avoiding relegation.

"Not all the donations are reported to the budget control authority in orderly fashion," says a soccer executive. "There are donations that reach the club indirectly, so the teams will be able to avoid detailing who is helping and who is donating."

Gil Lev, one of Netanya's owners, explains: "All our financial activities are properly reported for control. We don't hide a thing, and we operate exactly according to the rules."

But what happens when a coach who brought the team hundreds of thousands of shekels doesn't have good news to bring from the pitch?

"We have clear rules," says Lev. "Every meeting with possible donors, we make it clear that the donor will have no mandate regarding our decisions. Regarding Banin, too - the decision not to fire him is not connected to the donor he recruited. He is the Netanya coach because that is what we decided. If they would make the donation contingent on a promise that Banin would not be fired, we would not accept it. Banin is coach because of his professional ability."

Eli Gino,former owner of Hapoel Be'er Sheva, confirms that he received economic assistance through a coach. He says Gili Landau, who coached under him two separate times over the past decade, brought a businessman from Netanya who donated $50,000.

"This donation helped us a lot," he says. "I made it clear to Landau and to the businessman that I am not obliged to keep Landau on the team if he doesn't succeed. I told Gili that I am very happy about the contribution, but his job is still not guaranteed. And that's how it was - I fired him during the season. By the way, the businessman did not take it up with me."

There are other cases of Israeli soccer coaches sliding between the pitch and the front office. Nir Klinger, as coach of Beitar Be'er Sheva, tried to help the club owners set up a meeting between him and his business friend Koby Ben Gur. The meeting didn't lead to cooperation. Uri Malmilian, as coach of Beitar Jerusalem, made a match between the club and a construction company. The deal fell through in the end, and Malmilian didn't enjoy immunity from losing his job.

'No quid pro quo'

"In one case, my coach came to me and told me he has a good friend who wants to make a contribution," says Alon. "I told him 'great,' but he demanded that I bump up his contract as a result. I told him, 'If you want to get a donation, by all means, but I won't raise your salary.' I didn't want to be a hostage of the coach. The donation didn't arrive."

In another case, says Alon, a coach contacted him and promised to bring a sponsor, but he wasn't suited for the job, so Alon passed on the coach and the donation. "If the coach and the donor don't come with conditions, it's another thing," adds Alon. "But if you agree to such conditions, you sacrifice the club."

Eli Mahfoud, coach of Hapoel Petah Tikva, says he doesn't see a problem with a coach bringing in assistance or having business ties. "It's okay, as long as conditions like immunity from being fired are not promised. I think even if a coach recruits contributions, and it doesn't matter how big they are, only the results will determine his fate."

Even if it's ethically dubious, UEFA, European soccer's governing body, does not forbid the practice. Instances like these are not mentioned in the big leagues, but it can definitely happen in the smaller leagues.

In Serbia, for example, Mladen Dodic recruited a furniture company to support the team he was coaching, Javor Ivanjica.

And here's another example. It's hard to believe there is no connection between the fact that Barcelona gave up on its policy of not having a sponsor in favor of the Qatari Foundation, and the excellent ties enjoyed by its former coach, Pep Guardiola, in Qatar, where he played for two years.

So, yes, it can happen even in a place like Barcelona.

Sharon Bukov