After his team lost 2-0 to Hapoel Be'er Sheva in the Ramat Gan national stadium on Sunday night, Coach Eli Cohen declared, "This isn't Beitar."
His protestation regarding his understaffed soccer team was understandable. Zahi Elihen and Eden Nahmani, two of the team's strikers, have scored four career goals in the Premier League between them. The middle of the defense was manned by Tal Kahila and Barak Moshe; the experience of the former basically amounts to the advice he receives from his father, former player Ehud Kahila, while Moshe's experience comes from a gig in the position with his youth team six years ago.
If it comforts anybody, Beitar deserved to score one more goal than it finished with and to yield at least one fewer. Goalkeeper Moshe Harush's mistake was indeed egregious, missing a routine free kick in injury time. If soccer were mathematics, or at least just, Beitar would not have lost.
"This isn't Hapoel Be'er Sheva," is what the team's head coach, Elisha Levy, could have uttered at the end of the same match, but that would have required a measure of humility. Who knows? Perhaps the team has exhausted its tendency to self-destruct, and all that is left for the fans to do is to sit and relax; to cross their hands behind their necks and enjoy players who are capable of fulfilling their potential.
Here's what Levy really said after the game: "We reached a lot of scoring opportunities, although in the second half we lost a little ground in the center of the pitch. It's impossible to play well 90 minutes straight, and so it's important to play in a mature manner and to know how to take advantage of the good minutes."
Between the two halves up in Acre, as part of a trend established last season, Hapoel Acre's Yuval Naim was asked to give a sideline interview on his way from the dressing room to the pitch. Usually, head coaches are full of cliches like "we need to be first to every ball" and "to apply pressure on their side of the pitch" - it's the mortar that holds together the bricks of Israeli soccer. But this time the meeting between the media man and Hapoel Acre's coach provided a rare moment of honesty.
"No team will have a chance against Maccabi Tel Aviv during the coming seasons," said Naim. One half against the reigning league champion was enough for him to declare the fate of the next few seasons. Even if he were just covering himself for the collapse of his players in yielding two quick goals, Naim gave expression to the feeling – perhaps fear is the right word – accompanying all those who do not receive their salary from Maccabi Tel Aviv owner Mitch Goldhar. If Maccabi is inspired, a perfect storm will arise that will hurl aside anyone who gets in its way.
It's likely that Naim reached this conclusion even earlier, but there was no one around to ask his opinion. Goalkeeper David Goresh took the ball out of the net in the seventh minute, and something in the way he turned back, in the movement of his hopeless hands, looked familiar to Naim. After all, he had to do the same thing just six minutes earlier. Naim, himself a man of hand gestures that unmask his mood, also waved his hands in the air as if to say, "Jeez, how did they stick me and them into the same league?"
And, indeed, it had been a long time since Naim last saw a brilliant pass like the one Rada Prica made to Eran Zehavi, who scored Maccabi's second goal. His players, it's reasonable to assume, aren't capable of replicating it, even if they didn't have to deal with opposition. When Maccabi threatened to score again, he certainly had ideas about making a change, but they remained theoretical; only four players were sitting on the bench. One of them is a goalie, two others teenagers. He was shorthanded because of the budget control committee, the customs of Israeli soccer. Maccabi, in contrast, put Yoav Ziv in the stands and kept Moshe Lugasi and Omri Ben Harush at home.
Naim's salvation actually came from a completely unexpected direction. The same Maccabi Tel Aviv, which, during the first minutes, looked like someone who was liable to create an unassailable advantage in goal difference in the season opener, stopped as if it were intentional. The left wing, which created the Barak Itzhaki's first goal, became dead tired; the center of the pitch, which put almost illegal pressure on Acre's midfield, stopped to catch its breath, perhaps to infuse Naim with a little optimism about the future of the team, which is marked from the start as one of the weakest in the league. They still have to play Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv. And perhaps, just perhaps, Naim was only exaggerating.