Soccer / Beitar Jerusalem Avoids Big Guns

The draw was made yesterday in Nyon, Switzerland, for the first and second qualifying rounds of the Champions League and the first round of next season's UEFA Cup.

In the Champions League, Premier League champion Beitar Jerusalem will face Wisla Krakow of Poland in the second qualifying round, while in the UEFA Cup, Hapoel Tel Aviv will face A.C. Juvenes/Dogana of San Marino and Ironi Kiryat Shmona will play FK Mogren of Montenegro.

The Beitar players were busy with their morning training session when yesterday's draw was held, and when it became clear that the Israeli champion had avoided the big guns in the draw - Glasgow Rangers, Fenerbahce, Panathinaikos and Partizan Belgrade - they let out a whoop of delight that did not please coach Yitzhak Shum.

During the course of a team lunch, Shum told his players that Krakow is a very dangerous team and warned them that they will need to work hard between now and the end of the month if they want to progress to the third and final qualifying round - and from there to the money-spinning group stages.

"Krakow is a very good team," Shum told reporters later, "and we will do everything we can to progress."

Beitar's general manager, Itzik Kornfine, was in Nyon for the draw and immediately afterward contacted his Polish counterpart to begin arranging the visits of both teams.

Wisla Krakow is one of the wealthiest teams in Poland, but so far this summer the squad has been reduced by several key players' departure. Strengthening the squad is conditional on qualifying for the money-spinning group stages of the Champions League, and all of the team's energy will be focused on making it past Beitar.

The team's golden age began in 1998, when it was purchased by Boguslaw Cupial, one of the richest men in Poland and owner of the Telefonika cable company. Over the past decade, Cupial has invested close to $100 million in the club and been rewarded with six league titles. Krakow's best performance in European competition came in the 2002/2003 season, when it reached the UEFA Cup quarter-finals, after victories over Parma of Italy and Schalke of Germany.

The team was banned from European competition for one year in 1999 after one of its fans threw a knife at an opposing player. Fortunately, the Italian player in question - Dino Baggio - was unhurt, but the incident caused a huge scandal in Poland at the time.

Familiar face

The Krakow name that will be most familiar to Israeli soccer fans is not that of a player or even the coach, but the man in charge of the youth team who also has special responsibility for handling the club's 16- and 17-year-old players - Kazimierz Moskal.

From 1994 to 1998, Moskal was a Hapoel Tel Aviv player, where he made himself a crowd favorite before moving on to Ashdod for half a season.

Speaking to Haaretz yesterday, Moskal warned his friends in Israel, "Krakow is an excellent team. I think we're a better team than Beitar and I believe we can progress to the next round. Pawel Brozek is a fine striker and was top scorer in the league season. We also have a superb midfielder in Radoslaw Sobolewski and our Brazilian defender, Cleber, is doing an excellent job. We also have Wojciech Lobodzinski, who played for Poland at Euro 2008 and is one of the best wingers in the country. All in all, Krakow is a very dangerous team."

Moskal, however, tempers his optimism with a dash of realism. "But remember," he adds, "I haven't seen any Israeli league soccer for 10 years. I've seen the Israeli national team a couple of times, and am sure that the level of the league has improved greatly since I played there. I have heard that Beitar has a massive budget and that there's a lot of cash there for new players. Obviously, anyone who invests so much money in a team wants to see it do well in European competition as well."

Krakow's head coach, Maciej Skorza, told Haaretz that he does not know much about Beitar, but his team of assistants will start collecting information immediately. "The only Israeli player I really know anything about is Yossi Benayoun - and he's a great player," he added.

Hapoel relief

Hapoel Tel Aviv players were on their way to a training camp in Austria when the draw was made for the first round of the UEFA Cup yesterday. It was only when they touched down in Vienna that the news came through that Hapoel would be facing A.C. Juvenes/Dogana - and the relatively straightforward draw was greeted with relief.

"We will study our opponents in a professional and thorough manner," said coach Eli Guttman, "and we will approach the task with the seriousness it deserves. Obviously, we will do everything we can to progress to the next round."

Despite Guttman's relatively cautious words, sources at Hapoel say that failure to eliminate the team from San Marino would be a major trauma for the club. "This is a team we should rip to pieces," said one player.

The full Montenegro

Ironi Kiryat Shmona made history yesterday when it was included - for the first time - in the draw for one of Europe's top soccer tournaments. Kiryat Shmona will play Mogren Budva of Montenegro in the first round of the UEFA Cup.

Mogren finished last season in third place in the Montenegrin league and won the national cup. Formed in 1920, Mogren, like Kiryat Shmona, will be playing in European competition for the first time in its history.

Speaking after yesterday's draw, Kiryat Shmona chairman Izi Sheratzky repeated his pledge that if there are 100 fans who want to accompany the team to Montenegro, he will foot the bill for the match tickets.

Team coach Michel Dayan said after learning who his team will be facing that "we still can't say an awful lot about Mogren. I understand that they won their national cup and finished third in the league, but apart from that, we don't know too much about them. We have already said that we will prepare ourselves in the most professional manner possible, and find out all we can about the team in the coming days. We will get our hands on videos of their games so that we can prepare properly for the games."