Soccer / Champions League / Ramat Gan Too Strong for Lod in Promotion Decider

But police probe into suspected match-fixing inLod game could mean celebrations are premature.

For some, at least, there was closure. For Carlos Chacana, who lost his son Igor to leukemia during the past season, Hapoel Ramat Gan's promotion to the Premier League after just one season in the second tier, was more than a sporting achievement.

"This has been an unbearably difficult season," the Argentinean striker said after his team beat Hapoel Lod 2-0 in the National League promotion decider on Friday. "Igor loved this team and he gave me the strength from up there to carry on. I've been at this club, which is more than a family to me, for six years and I would love to stay."

But for Ramat Gan, this may not be the final chapter. A police investigation has been launched into Hapoel Lod's unlikely 6-0 victory over Ahi Nazareth last week and the Israel Football Association has warned all the teams involved that Friday's playoff could become irrelevant if police find evidence of match-fixing.

That's because, at the end of the regular season, three teams - Lod, Ramat Gan and Maccabi Herzliya - were tied on points at the top of the table. With only one promotion place up for grabs, it was decided (arbitrarily, some have argued ), to hold a playoff between the teams in first and second place, according to goal difference. So if the result of Friday's "decisive" playoff is annulled, Herzliya could, theoretically, get a lifeline.

Ramat Gan coach Freddy David was adamant, however, that this nightmare scenario would not come true. "The investigation has nothing to do with Hapoel Ramat Gan," he said. "We have won promotion back to the Premier League and that's that."

Despite the battering that Israeli soccer's image has taken of late - and the brawl that followed the previous meetings between these two teams - Friday's playoff was a credit to the game. The Moshava Stadium in Petah Tikva was as close to being full as it has been since it was opened 18 months ago. Some 11,000 fans - 7,000 from Ramat Gan and 4,000 from Lod - were vocal and the atmosphere was festive.

The game itself, while not reaching the heights, was played sportingly and the referee had a relatively quiet 90 minutes. At the final whistle, while Ramat Gan was celebrating, the Lod fans applauded their players for their efforts. Police also reported that there were no untoward incidents after the game.

The only blot on an otherwise spotless copybook was an outburst of petulance from Lod chairman Abu Subhi, who accosted David outside the Ramat Gan changing room. The short-fused Lod chairman also launched a tirade at IFA chief Uri Shilo, accusing him of colluding to prevent Lod from being promoted. The IFA opted not to respond to the charges at this time.

The game was only six minutes old when Ramat Gan edged in front, when Omer Buksenbaum stroked the ball over the Lod goalie. Quarter of an hour later, Lod came close to leveling, but Kobi Hassan's 20-meter free kick cannoned back off the goalpost.

The league's top scorer, Murad Abu Anza, also had a chance to equalize in the 67th minute, but couldn't reach the target after finding himself alone against the Ramat Gan goalkeeper. As Lod pressed for a goal, Ramat Gan put the game beyond reach with a stunning goal by Ofir Hemo, who intricately picked his way past four defenders and rolled the ball into the net from close range.

After the game, Hemo dedicated his goal to teammate Chacana. "I don't know how Carlos managed to deal with his personal tragedy," Hemo said. "He's a professional and he's an amazing guy. I'm delighted that we've been able to bring a little joy into the life of such a great man."