Soccer / Luzon Won't Let Coach Bolt U21s

The Israel Football Association yesterday let Guy Levi know he would not have an easy time leaving the national under-21 team to coach Maccabi Tel Aviv.

The Israel Football Association yesterday let Guy Levi know he would not have an easy time leaving the national under-21 team to coach Maccabi Tel Aviv. IFA chair Avi Luzon told Levi he would have to quit first if he wanted to switch.

IFA officials yesterday expressed rage at Levi for accepting Maccabi Tel Aviv's coaching offer. Several management and secretariat members told IFA chairman Avi Luzon that he should fire Levi forthwith for his behavior in recent days. Others, however, suggested Luzon should pay Levi back by not releasing him from his contract. Senior IFA management also said Levi had caused damage to the institution.

Luzon was taken aback by Levi's behavior and felt insulted because of the support he'd given the coach since the European Championship. He had rejected pressure to fire Levi after that tournament.

Levi called Luzon yesterday and requested an urgent meeting after practice. Rejecting Levi's request, Luzon said the U21 team "faces an important mission, and it's unacceptable to make a coaching change two weeks before the European Championship qualifiers."

When the two met in Luzon's office, the chairman told Levi, "I expect you to honor the contract and march the youth team to victory." Luzon said he understood Levi, whose contract expires next June, would be passing up a two-year contract with Maccabi, and that he was prepared to give him a contract extension.

Levi rejected the offer and told Luzon, "I respect you and admire you very much for what you've done for me, but Rabbi [Yoshiyahu] Pinto said I should go to Maccabi Tel Aviv, and I am doing what the Rabbi tells me."

The meeting between the two ended unresolved. Luzon held his ground, while Levi didn't let on whether he would quit. However, it seems Levi will leave the national U21 team in time to travel with Maccabi to Turkey for the return leg of its UEFA Cup second qualifying round tie against Erciyesspor.

Maccabi officials put all negotiations with other potential coaches on hold. Captain Avi Nimni decided to give Levi a few more days. Maccabi informed the IFA it was prepared for Levi to coach the U21 team's two upcoming European Championship qualifiers while working with the interim coach in Tel Aviv. The IFA rejected the compromise offer out of hand.

"There's no way Guy Levi would receive approval to coach both Maccabi Tel Aviv and the U21 team," responded Luzon. "There's no such scenario."

Been there, done that

IFA officials pointed out that during the offseason they resisted pressure by Bnei Yehuda and Moshe Sinai to allow the assistant coach of the senior national squad to serve as coach for both Bnei Yehuda and the national team simultaneously. Since former IFA chair Itche Menahem gave his approval for Levi to coach both the U21 team and Hapoel Upper Nazareth, the officials continued, the association decided coaches working at the national level would no longer coach league clubs. Luzon has no intention of backing down from this decision, they said.

In previous instances, the IFA has released coaches from their contracts but with fines. Such was the case when former IFA chair Gavri Levi, Guy Levi's father, permitted then-U17 coach Beni Tabak to accept a tempting offer from Hapoel Beer Sheva but also fined him. In the case of Avraham Grant, who quit the U21 team to sign with Maccabi Haifa, the elder Levi got the secretariat to decide Grant would no longer coach national teams. Some IFA officials last night wanted similar sanctions for Levi.

Levi's agreement with Maccabi Tel Aviv gives him the final word on professional decisions. Levi, who has relied for years on the advice of Rabbi Pinto, last year rejected a generous offer from Hapoel Tel Aviv for $170,000 per season. The contract was just waiting for Levi's signature, but the Rabbi told him to pass it up and stay with the U21 squad.

"What the Rabbi says, Guy does," said a close associate of Levi yesterday. "There are powers above everybody, and he sees things none of us can see over the long run."

Levi would like to leave the U21 team without Luzon being furious and is looking into the option that should the chair refuse to release him, either he would resign or Maccabi would leave tomorrow for Turkey without a coach while Levi would continue lobbying Luzon to change his mind. Levi dreams of being the coach of the national team in future and doesn't want to get into a confrontation with Luzon, so he'll try until the last moment to make the change with the chair's blessing.

"Guy expended himself with the U21 team," said a member of IFA management who is not one Levi's admirers. "He had a great accomplishment by reaching the European Championship." The IFA official said there was no point in keeping Levi in charge after the spectacle of the past week.

"It doesn't honor the association or the team," the official added. "The fact that Guy wants to and is exerting pressure to go to Maccabi Tel Aviv puts the association and the [national] team in a bad light, and it would be better if Avi Luzon would release him for the good of both."