When Gili Landau was appointed coach of Hapoel Kiryat Shmona, he knew that he was stepping into the extra-large shoes of Ran Ben Shimon, who made history by leading the team to its first-ever league championship. He also knew that he was taking over a tightly knit team that was forged in the image of the man whom he replaced as coach. Rather than trying to erase the memory of Ben Shimon, however, Landau decided that his best course of action would be to adapt himself to the thinking of the team.
The first time he gathered all his players together, Landau said that his style of play would be based on four pillars: speed, efficiency, accuracy and adaptability. Not surprisingly for a team that was undergoing a major shake-up, it was the last of the four that took up most of the meeting.
"It doesn't matter what changes you're going through," Landau told his players. "If you're good at what you do, it shouldn't have a negative effect. You have to be able to adapt to any new situation that arises. Now that you've won the championship, expectations will also be very different. You're not the underdogs anymore; your opponents will see you as favorites and that's something you're going to have to get used to. You have to learn how to deal with success. The ability to adapt is what makes the difference between good players and champions."
That pep talk marked the beginning and the end of the transition period between the two coaches and the start of a new era for Kiryat Shmona, which tonight begins its European adventure with a Champions League second qualifying round match away to Slovakian champion MSK Zilina. As of last night, no Israeli television station has bought the rights to broadcast the match.
First real test
For Landau, tonight's game will be the first real test for his new team. Apart from the change of coach, Kiryat Shmona has undergone very few changes since lifting the championship trophy in May. William Anjobo and Shlomi Azoulay have left, while Macedonian midfielder Darko Tasevski has joined.
"We've done everything we can to keep hold of the core of last season's squad," says Landau.
"It was important for us to maintain continuity and stability. We wanted to get the message across that Kiryat Shmona was not a one-season wonder. The style of play hasn't changed significantly but we decided there was no point changing something that works. We focused on making sure that the players know the system and stick to it."
Little wonder, therefore, that Kiryat Shmona will field a familiar side for tonight's game, with Barak Badash and Shimon Abuhatzira up front. In defense, Salah Hasarma will take the place of the injured Eitan Tibi.
The past month has been rather intense for Kiryat Shmona. The players took part in two training camps - one in Caesarea and the other the Netherlands. Not only have they given Landau a chance to get to know his squad, but, more importantly, they gave his squad a chance to get to know him. "We were careful not to push the players too hard," says Landau. "Ideally, preseason training lasts about eight weeks, and we only had four. So we had to cram in a lot of preparations to be ready for our first match."
During that month, the players learned all about Landau's soccer philosophy. On more than one occasion during their many pep talks, Landau handed out reading material on how to maintain a winning outlook, on achieving goals and the will to succeed. According to one player, this radically different approach is also evident in training. "Even when we're playing practice matches," one of the players said, "Gili asks us to think outside the box. Under Ben Shimon, training was interesting; under Landau, it's original and challenging."
Landau was also quick to make sure that his players took to him quickly. He held long talks with them individually and told them his door was always open to them. "I'm here for you," he told them, "and I've got your backs."
Landau had hoped to play tonight's European opener with an additional striker, but the key targets that he singled out all fell through because of high transfer costs. The team's managing director, Yossi Edrey, even traveled to Morocco in an attempt to sign Chadian forward Karl Barthelemy, but the gap between what Kiryat Shmona was willing to offer and what the player's current team was demanding was simply too wide. "I still hope to sign another striker," says Landau, "but for the games against Zilina we'll have to make do with what we've got. I believe that we're good enough to make it into the next stage. If we can get a decent result in Slovakia, I believe we can beat them here. Our biggest star is the team itself and I want us to win games through teamwork."