Monday, 14 June 2010

The Last Word 14: The power of World Cup fever

The Jerusalem Post
May 29. 2006
Page 11

Sometimes things creep up on you when you are least expecting it.
A couple of weeks ago I had become despondent. It was the end of the Israeli and English soccer seasons, which I assumed meant there would be no meaningful soccer to watch until June 9 at 7 p.m. when Germany kicks the World Cup off against Costa Rica in Munich.
But suddenly, this weekend, it started. Just when I thought I would have to put up with another fortnight of no action, World Cup fever began with a bang.
One might have thought that these pre-tournament friendlies would be meaningless and boring, but try telling that to the Americans who beat Venezuela, under-fire Dutch striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy who scored for Holland as the Oranje defeated Cameroon, or the Welsh who handed England's Group B opponents Trinidad and Tobago a 2-1 loss in Austria on Saturday night.
Watching clips of some of the 45,000 people who paid to watch Brazil train in Switzerland, with the Samba dancing girls in bikinis mixing with the locals of the tiny town of Weggis, and it is clear the party has already begun, even if many of the teams haven't even arrived in Germany yet.
The World Cup. There really is nothing like it. Exactly one month of pure football bliss. And the excitement is becoming palpable.
For the first two weeks there are at least three games a day to watch, and nearly every game counts.
For us English, every international tournament brings with it the most insane amount of hype and media coverage. This is my first time watching England from outside of the country, but the expectation hasn't waned even a little bit.
Growing up in the shadow of Wembley Stadium, coupled with the failure of my favorite team to come anywhere close to the top division, made it hard not to be an England fan.
From when I was about six-years-old, I would travel the one stop to Wembley Park station for the majority of England's home games, and always get caught in the passion and excitement of the major tournaments.
But unfortunately England has never seemed to achieve its potential. The cruel elimination at the hand of Diego Maradona was just the first in a long list of failures.
"We could have beaten Argentina in '86," people say. "We nearly beat West Germany in the 1990 semis," "It was Beckham's fault in '98" - each time there's been an excuse.
This time it was going to be different. The team was mature and ready with a great mix of experience and young talent. But the Wayne Rooney debacle changed all that.
There's no doubt Rooney was the man England supporters were pinning their hopes on. Paulo Ferreira's appalling tackle in the Chelsea vs Manchester United game which secured the title for the Blues, changed the whole plan.
But it appeared obvious from the start that Rooney would not play and all this focus on him surely only distracts the other players from the task in hand.
England faces a difficult task, especially with Sweden in its group. It is not unlikely that England could finish second and face Germany in the second round, which would most probably end English dreams before they even started.
The decision to take the totally untested Theo Walcott in place of Jermaine Defoe seems to be madness. Walcott is not just inexperienced, he's never even played in the Premiership before and with England's lack of striking power, has a good chance to fail.
If only England had Ronaldinho. I don't think there has ever been a player like him. It is not only the Brazilian's skills and pace that astound viewers, but the passion and happiness with which he plays the game is infectious.
Surely this is the 26-year-old's year. He's already won the Spanish title and Champions League with Barcelona. Who would bet against him lifting the World Cup in six weeks.

Eto'o takes stardom in stride

The Jerusalem Post
May 26, 2006
Page 12

Samuel Eto'o smiles once again as he remembers the feelings he had during the Champions League final in Paris.
It is only a week since that classic game, and this has to be the third or fourth interview in a row that the FC Barcelona striker has done with the Israeli press, but Eto'o doesn"t seem to mind one bit.
"I am never nervous and always focused," Eto'o said. "I always know that happy moments come after sad ones."
At halftime, his Barcelona team was down 1-0 to Arsenal in one of the most important matches game in the club"s history. But with 14 minutes to go, Eto'o equalized before Juliano Belleti scored the winner five minutes later.
"The game wasn"t finished and there was always hope we could win," Eto'o said. "At halftime, the players spoke to each other and there was no feeling of pressure. We knew the game had only just started."
The 25-year-old Cameroon international flew into Israel on Tuesday as a guest of the Peres Center for Peace and promoted his message of tolerance since the moment he arrived.
Eto"o has been a tireless campaigner against racism. He famously threatened to leave the field after being subjected to monkey noises by Real Zaragoza fans during a Spanish League match in February.
He says he decided to come to Israel to help "the children" and on Wednesday afternoon, he witnessed a "mini world cup" featuring mixed Israeli and Palestinian teams of youngsters.
But before that, the player many people name as the greatest striker in the world spoke about his experiences at Barcelona.
Eto'o is delighted he has brought the Champions League trophy to the Catalan city and believes Barca can only improve.
The victory was only the second time the club has won European soccer's premier club competition, the first being against Sampdoria at Wembley Stadium in 1992.
The former Mallorca and Espanyol player was clearly at the top of his game last season, scoring 24 goals to help Barcelona win the Spanish league title for the second year in a row.
"Most of our players are aged 25 or under, so our team is still being built. We need to continue and to be modest. We must push ourselves and maybe we can get even better."
The biggest star on the team is undoubtedly Brazilian Ronaldinho, who Eto"o describes as "magic."
Arsenal fans may wish he would move to north London, but Eto"o stresses he has no desire to leave Spain. "I am playing in the best league in the world and I don"t think about moving," he said.
With the World Cup only two weeks away, Eto"o reflects on the fact that he won"t get the opportunity to show off his skills on the ultimate international stage. Cameroon finished second to the Ivory Coast in Group 3 of African qualification, and it will miss out on the finals for the first time since 1986.
"It was God"s will that I won"t play in the World Cup this time and I have to accept this," he says.
At least Eto'o, who has played more than 60 times for his country, has had experience of playing in the last two World Cups - in Japan/South Korea four years ago when Cameroon failed to get past the first round, and in France "98 where he made one appearance.
Eto"o won"t name the team he believes will win the tournament but he believes the African teams have a chance to do well.
"Everything is possible. I have a lot of friends on the African teams and I know that with some luck they could go very far," he concludes.
And what does he think of Israel?
"It is a beautiful country from what I have seen of it," Eto'o says. "It's just a shame that I can"t go into the sea because I can"t swim," he adds with another smil

Eto'o thrills children and players

The Jerusalem Post
May 25, 2006
Page 12

Barcelona star Samuel Eto'o showed a touch of brilliance as he dribbled past half of the joint Betar Jerusalem/Bnei Sakhnin team to score the second goal in a charity match for peace match at Zissman Hall in Ramat Gan on Wednesday night.
The Cameroon international played for a few minutes in the first half on the team made up of stars from the TV show Eretz Nehederet, which faced players from Betar and Sakhnin.
Eto'o, who arrived in Israel on Tuesday, spent the day promoting his message of anti-racism and anti-violence in the trip organized by the Peres Center for Peace.
But on Wednesday evening, the time finally came for him to show off the skills that have helped him become recognized as one of the best soccer players in the world.
Although the score was relatively insignificant, Eto'o played most of the second half on the Betar-Sakhnin team to help it easily win the match 5-2, with a hatrick from Betar forward Lior Asulin assuring the victory.
In an example of the unity before the 1,000 strong crowd, Asulin exchanged passes with Sakhnin's Abed Rabbo before firing home his first goal a minute into the match.
"It is something wonderful to see that a person and player like him came to Israel to promote peace," Betar"s Gal Alberman told The Jerusalem Post after the match. "We don't need to see it here. We all know how great he is when we see him on TV every week. I think Samuel Eto"o is the best striker in the world at the moment."
There has been a history of violent clashes between the fans of Betar and Sakhnin and the message from the players was clear.
"We want to show the supporters that the problem is not with the players," Alberman said. "It is important to get unity among the Jews and Arabs. I felt no difference playing with the Sakhnin players tonight compared with playing for my own team."
The event attracted a number of politicians, including Peres Center president and Vice Premier Shimon Peres and MK Tzahi Hanegbi, who played in goal for the Eretz Nehederet team.
Peres addressed the crowd before the game. "When I see Betar and Sakhnin together this is an Eretz Nehederet [wonderful land]," he said. "We hope there will be peace and end to violence."
After Eto"o accepted a trophy from Sports Minister Ophir Pines, he told the crowd. "I never thought I would be here in Israel with such important people. I have scored many goals in my life but this, to promote peace here, is one of the most beautiful."
Earlier in the day the Barcelona player spoke about the importance of standing up against racism and violence in soccer. The player has become a symbol of anti-racism, especially after he threatened to walk off the pitch during a game in the Spanish league against Real Zaragoza in February when he had been taunted with monkey chants.
"I am in soccer and if I can use my position as an instrument to promote the betterment of things than I will do it," he told the Post. "During my free time anything I can do to help making things better in the world I will do with the greatest of pleasures."
Eto"o admitted that the problem of racism in Israeli soccer, which is mostly directed against Arab players, is different than in Europe. However he stressed: "We need to recognize there is a problem of racism and publicize this. We need to be together in the war against racism. What happens in the stadiums is unacceptable. It is a long road but we have to take it together."
Earlier on Wednesday, the Cameroonian attended a special "mini World Cup" tournament at Hadar Yosef, where 24 mixed teams of Palestinian and Israeli youngsters from the Peres Center sports department battled for the coveted trophy. The final of the seven-a-side competition was a tense affair, won by the team representing Italy, which beat Brazil on penalties after a 1-1 draw.
"I decided to come to Israel because of the children. It is very important to bring them together so they will know to live together. Thankfully I have been given the possibility to do something through soccer and encourage people to listen. It is an important tool."

Betar, Ossie Ardiles agree to terms.

The Jerusalem Post
May 24, 2006
Page 12

After weeks of speculation, Argentinian World Cup winner Ossie Ardiles was named the new Betar Jerusalem head coach on Tuesday.
The former Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United manager had met with Betar's billionaire owner Arkadi Gaydamak and club chairman Vladimir Shklar during a trip to Israel over the weekend.
On Tuesday, Gaydamak offered Ardiles a contract worth a reported $500,000 for one year.
Ardiles, 53, is expected to return to Jerusalem in the next 10 days to complete the deal and replace Frenchman Luis Fernadez, who quit last month.
Following the announcement, Shklar told The Jerusalem Post he was "very happy that Ardiles is going to train Betar."
"We are sure he will be a success here and we hope he gets the fans' support," Shklar added.
The decision put an end to the debate over who would lead the club into the coming season. Until Sunday it had been widely assumed that former Israel national team coach Avraham Grant would be taking charge, but Gaydamak is thought to have preferred a big name foreigner who can attract quality players from outside Israel, and on Sunday Grant ruled himself out.
In recent weeks, former England managers Kevin Keegan and Terry Venables and ex-Romania coach Georghe Hagi have all been linked with the position.
Ardiles has more than 10 years experience managing clubs around the world, although he has had a distinct lack of success, compared with his fantastic playing career.
Betar assistant coach Guy Azuri said he is "very excited" to work with Ardiles. "I think Ardiles was a tremendous football player and I am sure we will gain a lot from his experience at the club," Azuri told The Jerusalem Post. "All I hope is that together we will bring Betar to the place the club want to be. We all want to win the championship next season."
Referring to the many changes in the coaching staff last season, Azuri added, "One of the most important things in a football club is stability and quietness. We need it next year. I'm sure that's what everyone wants and I hope Ardiles will start and finish the season."
The 2005/06 season was one of upheaval for the Jerusalem club. Eli Ohana was the coach at the beginning of the campaign, but left after only one Premier League match. Ton Caanen took over, but soon after Fernandez was brought in as general manager, moved to Maccabi Tel Aviv as Fernandez took on the responsibilities of head coach as well.
Azuri remained on the coaching staff, working as assistant to all three head coaches and even taking control in between Ohana and Caanen.
Betar finished in third place in the league, guaranteeing a spot in the UEFA Cup.

The Last Word 13: The power of celebrity

The Jerusalem Post
May 22, 2010
Page 10

Just over a year ago, Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho was a much more controversial figure than he is now.
In March 2005, he arrived in Israel on a trip organized by the Peres Center for Peace, just a couple of weeks after he had accused Barcelona manager Frank Rijkard of entering Swedish referee Anders Frisk's dressing room at halftime during Chelsea's Champions League game with the Catalan club.
Mourinho had refused to withdraw his accusations, incurring the anger of UEFA, the governing body of European soccer. But for a few days, the Chelsea boss put all the disputes to one side to promote the values of co-existance. Maybe the controversy even helped the cause of peace, because many English journalists made the trip to Israel and followed Mourinho wherever he went.
On Tuesday, Barcelona striker Samuel Eto'o will be arriving in Israel for a similar trip. The main event will see him participating in a soccer match in which a joint Betar Jerusalem and Bnei Sakhnin team will play against the stars of the TV show Eretz Nehederet.
It seems the Peres Center is getting it right. Even though the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is clearly years, if not decades, from being anywhere close to being solved, the fact is that we are all just people. If it is possible to get Israeli and Palestinian children to mix together and play together it can only be a good thing.
Each project has been cleverly designed to gain maximum exposure and catch the public's attention. Sad as it may be, celebrity sells, and this week's events have been created to attract Israelis, young and old.
Eretz Nehederet is one of the most popular Israeli shows on TV and the inclusion of the program's stars will catch the attention of many mainstream Israelis. The game has also been sponsored by the company that produces the popular soccer sticker albums, meaning the young soccer fanatics in this country will also be interested in the project. And the idea of bringing Betar and Bnei Sakhnin players to play together in one team will demonstrate the possibility of coexistance to the supporters of both teams.
Eto'o, a Cameroonian who has campaigned against racism in soccer, is definitely a big name, but the fact that he scored in the Champions League final last week will only help boost the international profile of the trip.
As Mourinho did last year, Eto'o will hold a professional workshop for leading Israeli and Palestinian coaches. Of course Eto'o is not a coach. And he is not Jose Mourinho, widely considered one of the best soccer coaches around.
Perhaps for this reason, the lecture the Chelsea manager delivered at a Tel Aviv hotel last March was attended by the head coaches of nearly every team in the Israeli Premier League.
It is doubtful whether Eto'o will be able to deliver a masterclass on managing international stars and tactical coaching as Mourinho did. Standing in front of some 200 people, he revealed the methods he uses to keep his Chelsea team at the top of its game - from training techniques to team-building exercises.
Even if some of the Israeli coaches seemed less than interested in learning from a master of the game, Mourinho's visit was clearly an inspiration. We can only hope that the positive work the Center is doing will continue to break down barriers in this country for years to come.

Betar interviews Ossie Ardiles

The Jerusalem Post
May 21, 2006
Page 12

Former Tottenham Hotspur star Ossie Ardiles flew into Israel over the weekend for talks with Betar Jerusalem owner Arkadi Gaydamak over the vacant head coach job at the club.
The Argentinian, who was one of the first foreigners to play in English soccer, arrived in Tel Aviv on Friday. He was met at the airport by Betar chairman Vladimir Shklar and was interviewed by Gaydamak on Friday evening.
Speculation has been rife over who will take over at Betar since last month when Frenchman Luis Fernandez announced he would not be coaching the Jerusalem team next season.
Shklar told The Jerusalem Post that although Ardiles "made a good impression," former Israel national team coach Avraham Grant is still in the running.
"We had a good meeting with Ardiles, but we are still deciding and will announce a decision in the next few days," Shaklar said.
Ardiles, 54, remained positive as he left the country on Saturday. Speaking at Ben-Gurion Airport, he said he was "very, very impressed" by what he had seen and was hoping to become the next Betar coach.
"We had a very good meeting yesterday with the chairman and the general manager," Ardiles told Telesport. "We discussed a lot of things. We are very close to coming to an agreement and now we have to wait a few days."
The former Tottenham, West Brom and Swindon Town manager said he had been shown videos of Betar playing and that everything is "very, very positive."
"I have been very impressed with the people I have been talking to. The chairman is a very, very impressive guy. He wants to put Betar Jerusalem at the very, very top...," he said.
Ardiles had much success as a player, both for his country and at club level. His greatest moment came in the 1978 World Cup, which Argentina won on home soil.
However, his managerial career has been less impressive. In 1993, he was appointed manager of Spurs, where he employed his attacking diamond formation. But the experiment failed and Tottenham finished in an embarrassing 15th place in the Premiership and he was sacked a few months into the following season.
Since then, Ardiles has coached at Racing Club in Argentina, Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia and from 2003-05 at Tokyo Verdy in Japan"s J-League, where he won the Emperor"s Cup but was fired after a poor run of form.

The Last Word 12: The crazy managerial merry-go-round

The Jerusalem Post
May 15, 2006
Page 12

Am I the only England soccer team supporter pulling my hair out in frustration?
There I was a couple of weeks ago, minding my own business, when the dreaded announcement came through. The English Football Association had inexplicably appointed Steve McClaren as the next manager of England's national soccer team.
OK, the decision had at least ended the ridiculously long speculation period over who would be replacing Sven Goran Eriksson. But McClaren? The man is the epitome of English mediocrity.
The Middlesbrough team he has managed for the last five years hasn't exactly set the world on fire. Just a few months ago, upset fans were ripping their season tickets up in his face after an embarrassing 7-0 loss to Arsenal in the Premier League. And the club may have managed to reach the UEFA Cup final earlier this month, but the 4-0 drubbing by Sevilla did not impress at all.
The choice sums up one of the big problems in soccer. The decision-makers don't seem to know what they are doing. The FA fiasco began a week or two earlier, when it was suddenly leaked that, after much careful deliberation, the association had offered the England job to Luis Felipe Scolari - the moustachioed Brazilian known as 'Big Phil,' who had guided Brazil to victory in the last World Cup and then done well with Portugal.
All well and good in theory, but there was one small problem - the guy can not speak English. At all. Not even a little bit. And I can't think of anyone in England who would likely to be able to understand Portuguese.
Thankfully, Big Phil turned the job down. But this does not excuse the decision to give it to McClaren. Martin O'Neill was always the only manager left on the shortlist who looked like he could inspire the players and do a good job.
Speculation over managerial appointments has definitely not been isolated around the England job. Here in Israel, a not dissimilar saga has been unfolding over who will coach Betar Jerusalem next season after the nutty Frenchman Luis Fernandez finally did the right thing and said he won't stay for another season.
The decision process here in Israel's capital has mirrored the embarrassment of the FA, with various unlikely names being bandied around. First the former Newcastle, Manchester City and England manager Kevin Keegan was revealed by various newspapers as being in talks with owner Arkadi Gaydamak. But he decided the unprofessionalism of the story being leaked to the press was a bad sign and he pulled out.
Now, the most intriguing candidate is the ex-Tottenham and Barcelona manager Terry Venables. It would be wonderful to see El Tel walk out onto the pitch at Teddy, but I very much doubt it's going to happen. The club may appear to be revelling in Russian billionaire Arkadi's massive influx of money, but anyone who takes a trip down to Betar's run-down, dirty training ground will come away with an altogether different impression.
If Gaydamak wants to make Betar into a top international side, he better start improving the training facilities or he will never be able to attract top players or managers. And Venables will surely be staying in England.

The Last Word 11: Looks can deceive

The Jerusalem Post
April 24, 2006
Page 10

Last year's Champions League final was clearly a night dreams were made of. There will be few true Liverpool fans who will ever forget that night in Istanbul, or how their team, that season's perennial underdog, came back from 3-0 down at halftime to level the game in the second half, and then beat the mighty AC Milan on penalties.
Steven Gerard's towering performance led his hometown side to the unlikeliest of victories that allowed the reds to qualify automatically for this season's Champions League, despite a poor fifth-place finish in the 2004/05 English Premier League.
Now every Arsenal and Tottenham fan knows what I am going to write now. It just can not be ignored how the situation this year's Gunners side find themselves in seems uncannily similar to that of last year's Liverpool.
I know how nervous it makes Arsenal fans to hear this as they are too scared of the prospects of failure, but here we have an Arsenal team looking odds on to make it to the Paris final to face either Barcelona or, dare we say it, AC Milan.
A 1-0 home win over what appeared to be an out of sorts Villarreal team last week puts them in good stead for Tuesday night's second leg in Spain.
And the 1-1 draw between Arsenal and fellow Londoners Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday has made it increasingly likely that the team in red will finish in fifth place in the league, behind Spurs.
As everyone knows, if Arsenal finishes fifth and somehow wins the Champions League it will qualify for next year's competition - most likely at the expense of its north London rivals - just as Liverpool did last season.
However, despite the initial similarities between the two situations, the makeup of and outlook for the two teams is very different.
If Arsenal manages to get to the final, let alone win it, it will be a triumph for the club's French manager, Arsene Wenger, who will be celebrating a decade in charge of the club.
Taking a look at the Arsenal side that faced and beat Villarreal last week and the one which drew with Spurs, what stands out is the number of youngsters on the team.
From 22-year-old Swiss center back Philip Senderos to Hleb and Fabegas in midfield and the lanky Kanu clone Emmanuel Adebayor up front, Arsenal exudes exuberant youthfulness.
As one Arsenal fan rarely fails to remind me, the entire Arsenal back four cost a fraction of the price of most Premiership players.
And this is all without mentioning the wonderful Thierry Henry.
Arsenal is moving into a new stadium next season and Wenger is building a team for a new era.
The Liverpool team of last year, however, was a team in transition, built on many older players. Goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek may have been a hero of last year's final with his Bruce Grobbelaar-style wobbly legs during the penalties, but he knew he was on his way out before the game started. Other players who featured in the final, like Didi Hamman, Milan Baros and Vladimir Smicer also soon saw their Anfield days numbered.
And it hasn't all come together this year. The Spaniards that Rafa Benitez has bought - from Garcia to Morientes - have blown hot and cold since last year, and Liverpool was easily knocked out of the Champions League.
This will not be the fate of Arsenal. Even if it doesn't beat Milan or Barcelona, which is a lot more likely than many people have predicted, Arsene Wenger is clearly looking to the future. And if the team ends up not qualifying for next year's Champions League, Arsenal fans should still stay positive. Because Europe should watch out for this young Arsenal team in the coming seasons.

The Last Word 10: FIFA is political

The Jerusalem Post
April 17, 2006
Page 10

Last week, Germany's deputy interior minister, August Hanning, travelled to Teheran to hold talks with senior Iranian officials.
During the discussions, the Iranians apparently raised their concerns about possible threats to the Iranian national team during the upcoming soccer World Cup, to be held in Germany this summer.
It turned out that the Iranian government has become worried about the possibility of "violent protests" at Iran's matches by Iranian opposition groups, who reportedly have hundreds of followers in Germany.
The Germans, it seems, understood Iran's worries and Hanning assured the Iranians that Germany will cooperate fully with the Islamist regime over any possible threats.
"When the Iranians fear a threat, they will tell us their reasons. Then our evaluation will flow back to Teheran," Hanning was quoted by AP in the Tagesspiegel newspaper.
Instead of placating the Iranians, maybe pressure should be put on Germany and FIFA, world soccer's governing body, to ban Iran from the World Cup for that country's president's repeated comments calling for the total destruction of the State of Israel and denying the Holocaust, as well as continuing nuclear weapons development.
But wait. The last organization you should expect any support from would be FIFA. Because, despite Iran's insane leaders, FIFA consistently stresses that it does not get involved in politics and the Iranian soccer team is completely welcome at Germany 2006.
In a statement released last Tuesday, FIFA president Sepp Blatter claimed that, "In the world of today, which is disrupted by long-lasting disputes and violence, football is one of the very few universal tools mankind can use... to symbolize what unites our planet over what divides it.
"FIFA's role is not to reprimand, but to help create bonds."
Lovely words. But this particular press release, which contained the phrase "FIFA, a non-political organization," was released to announce that the organization will be paying for the "rehabilitation" of the National Stadium in Gaza, which had been damaged by IDF artillery fire a week and a half before.
FIFA would love you to believe that the reason it decided to pay for the refurbishments is to "promote friendly relations between its members and in society for humanitarian objectives."
However, it seems that FIFA acts in anything other than a non-political manner.
Before FIFA decided to pay to repair the stadium, Jerome Champagne, the delegate to FIFA's president for special affairs, e-mailed the Israeli ambassador to Switzerland demanding an explanation as to why the stadium was bombed.
How FIFA can claim that its role is "not to reprimand" is anyone's guess. If Champagne had been satisfied that the Israeli strikes on the stadium were justified, would FIFA still have paid for the stadium to be fixed?
Maybe it's time for FIFA to admit that it is involved in politics.

FIFA to pay for repairs to Gaza soccer field shelled by IDF

The Jerusalem Post
April 12, 2006
Page 12

FIFA announced Tuesday that it will pay for the "rehabilitation" of a soccer field in the Palestinian-run Gaza Strip, which was damaged by IDF artillery fire earlier this month.
"In the world of today, which is disrupted by long- lasting disputes and violence, football is one of the very few universal tools mankind can use to bridge gaps between nations and peoples, and to symbolize what unites our planet over what divides it," FIFA President Sepp Blatter said.
World soccer's governing body said it would evaluate the extent of the damage done to the open-air stadium and its stands over the next few days, with the help of the Palestinian FA.
Much would depend on whether the drainage system was badly damaged.
"FIFA's role is not to reprimand, but to help create bonds and ensure that the young people of the region have hope and the possibility to enjoy the school of life that football represents," Blatter said. "Therefore, I call on the relevant authorities to do everything they can to allow Palestinian and Israeli football to develop."
FIFA stressed that it supported Palestinian and Israeli football equally.
While UEFA banned Israeli clubs and the national team from playing international competitions at home between October 2001 and April 2004 because of a series of terrorist attacks, FIFA ensured that Tel Aviv hosted the Israeli national team"s qualifying matches for the 2006 World Cup.
FIFA decided to pay for repairs to the field after it deemed the direct strike was "without any reason" and that the soccer field was not being used by Palestinians as a missile launching pad, as Israel's ambassador to Switzerland had originally claimed.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Thursday last week Jerome Champagne, the delegate to FIFA's president for special affairs, confirmed that he was "not happy with the situation" after learning that the IDF had fired at the stadium to "send a message to the Palestinians".
However, according to the Israel Football Association, Champagne then called the IFA on Friday to discuss the situation with IFA General Secretary Haim Zimmer.
An IFA statement said that Champagne said Israeli ambassador Aviv Shiron had told him the reason for the fire was that Kassams had been fired from close to the stadium and that he "had accepted the explanation".
No FIFA spokesman was available for a response when questioned about the apparenty discrepancy.
No casualties were reported in the April 1 strike, which left a large crater in the center of the field. The Israeli military said there had not been any rocket fire from the soccer field, but that the airstrike was part of an effort to deter possible attacks after an increase in rocket launches from Gaza.
The IDF artillery fire came in response to Palestinian Kassam rocket attacks into Israel, including one which hit a soccer field in Kibbutz Karmiya, close to Ashkelon the day before.
AP contributed to this report.

The Last Word 9: The failure of Betar's mediocre Europeans

The Jerusalem Post
April 10, 2006
Page 11

What a tumultuous week it's been for Betar Jerusalem. Just last weekend, after the embarrassing 1-0 defeat to bottom-of-the-league Hapoel Kfar Saba, the club's tempestuous (lets call him that for want of being impolite) 'general manager,' Luis Fernandez, told journalists that he had had enough of the fans disrespecting him and that he was definitely quitting at the end of the season.
A week later, and the former PSG and Espanyol coach has made a complete turnaround, insisting he's staying and he's happy.
It was all a little strange. Frenchman Fernandez had swiftly disappeared off to France after the Kfar Saba game. The poor man was all upset when the fans shouted at him after the team performed poorly, and he didn't want to work here anymore. No way was he going to change his mind, he insisted in numerous interviews given from France to Israeli journalists.
The funny thing was that, although Fernandez had made his feelings very clear to the Israeli media, the Betar management acted as if nothing had happened. Owner Arkadi Gaydamak said he had heard nothing about Fernandez quitting and president Vladimir Shklar said he hadn't spoken to Fernandez and therefore had nothing to say.
And, as if by magic, Fernandez was back four days later, denying it all. He was staying put, he said. He will see how it goes, but there's no reason to say he won't stay next year. He wants to take the team to Europe, etc., etc.
This rollercoaster ride might be fun and interesting, but can it really be good for the team?
Amazingly, it somehow managed to inspire the players, who performed exceptionally well against Bnei Yehuda. From Eliran Danin in the left of defense, through to Amit Ben- Shushan (a striker who had been put on the left wing), midfielder Aviram Bruchian and striker Barak Itzhaki - Betar was awesome. If it hadn't been for a penalty miss and some now-trademark bad finishing from Spanish import David Aganzo, Betar could easily have won five- or six-nothing.
But that's the point. This Fernandez does not seem to have taken the club forward like he thinks he has and talks about. The rudeness with which he treats journalists, his disgusting comments about Omri Afek, whom he publicly humiliated in interviews last week, and his below-average signings have done little to help the club.
These Europeans just aren't very good. Jerome Leroy can do some nice things, but he's too old and too slow; Aganzo can't shoot; Fabrice Fernandes is ineffective and center back Igor Mitreski is no better than Tomer Ben-Yosef or Eliran Hodida (who was forced out of the club and now plays for rival Bnei Sakhnin, of all teams).
What the win on Saturday night showed was that Betar can do very well indeed with the young Israeli players former coach Ton Caanen was so carefully bringing to the fore.
Under Caanen, who was pushed out after Fernandez decided he didn't want him, there was an electrifying atmosphere and togetherness amongst the team. The Dutchman bought no new players but inspired the ones that were there already. And those were the ones who performed on Saturday night - not the new ones (although Macedonian defender Mitreski played ok and somehow opened the scoring).
People have tried to make out that Leroy is the heart of the team - but without him Betar played with a spirit and finesse not seen since the 4-0 thrashing of Upper Nazareth last November.
So-called superstar Leroy clearly hasn't made any friends, and sat all by himself in the VIP area at Teddy Stadium on Saturday night after being suspended for picking up too many yellow cards.
Fernandez may well stay next season, but many fans feel that without him and his expensive mediocre Europeans the club will do fine by itself. Maybe its time to give assistant coach Guy Azuri full control. He's been through enough this season to gain the experience needed - and at least he can keep a cool head under pressure. Fernandez obviously can't.

Israel urged to stay off Gaza's pitch

The Jerusalem Post
April 7, 2006
Page 1

World soccer's governing body has raised concerns with the Israeli government after the IDF targeted the main soccer stadium in the Gaza Strip with artillery fire.
The shells, which reportedly left a large crater in the center of the field, were fired early last Friday morning in response to Kassam rocket attacks.
Those attacks included one rocket that landed on a soccer field at Kibbutz Karmiya, south of Ashkelon, the day before.
The IDF has acknowledged that the stadium was specifically targeted to "send a strong message to the Palestinian people against terrorism."
"Knowing the stadium was unpopulated, artillery fire from Israel was fired directly at it," said the IDF Spokesman. "The terrorism is coming from within them, and they need to know that they are the ones suffering."
The fire took place at a time when the Palestinian national soccer team is taking part in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup in Bangladesh.
Jerome Champagne, a representative of FIFA's president for special affairs, this week sent an official letter to Israeli Ambassador to Switzerland Aviv Shiron, asking him to explain why the stadium was targeted before FIFA decided what action, if any, to take.
Champagne told The Jerusalem Post that the organization was "not happy with what happened."
"Hitting a football stadium is absolutely counterproductive for peace, because today football is the only universal tool that can bridge gaps," he said.
The former FIFA deputy general-secretary said that Israeli checkpoints have made it impossible for the Palestinians to develop their own league since 2000, and he refused to condemn the Kassam attack on Karmiya.
Citing the 2004 FIFA decision to allow Israel to host its national team games on home soil after being forced to play abroad for two years due to terrorism fears, Champagne said, "We did everything possible to make sure the Israeli team has the right to play. At the same time, we have to observe the situation [in which] Palestinian football cannot be developed itself because of Israeli checkpoints."
When asked about the threat of Kassams, Champagne, a French national, said, "The Gaza Strip was occupied since 1967. [France was] occupied by Germany three times in the last 100 years. Do you think we could just kiss and make up after six months?"
"No part of Israel is occupied by the Palestinian people. It is not right to occupy a people," he added.
Shiron said that after he received the letter he discussed the issue with FIFA representatives. "I checked with the authorities in Israel, and I got back to them [FIFA] saying that in the framework of Israeli activities against Kassam rockets and its launchers apparently the field was hit."
Shiron said he also raised with FIFA the issue of the Kassam that hit the soccer field in Karmiya, but that FIFA had not yet responded.
Uri Selah, secretary of Kibbutz Karmiya, said one resident sustained light wounds in the attack, although it could have been much worse. "It is a small field, but if the rockets had been fired a day later it would have been full of people playing soccer and the situation could have been much more serious," he said.
AFC President Muhammad Bin Hammam condemned the Israeli strike as "a crime against Palestine sports facilities" and held a meeting with Palestine Football Association assistant general-secretary Nahid al-Hour to discuss the situation.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter, in Bangladesh to observe the tournament, also attended the meeting and is expected to discuss with Champagne on his return Friday what, if any, action FIFA will take.

The Last Word 8: How an Englishman fell in love with basketball

The Jerusalem Post
April 3, 2006
Page 10

By the time you read this either Florida or UCLA will have been crowned NCAA basketball Division 1 champion.
This is not an amazing fact to start off with. What is somewhat surprising is that I know the tournament has taken place at all.
For most English people, American sports are somewhat of an enigma. We know they can't be that bad - millions of Americans are obsessed by what they call football, by basketball, baseball and ice hockey - but we Englishmen just can't get our heads round them.
All that stopping and starting. The television timeouts every few minutes. The cheerleaders and half-time shows. It's all so, well, American.
In general, English people like their football (what the Yanks call soccer), and a little bit of cricket for a couple of months in the summer (when there's no football).
there's no need for dancing girls or razzmataz. We have the Premiership, with Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal - the best and most exciting league in the world.
Growing up in England it was always like this. Even when the satellite TV channels began broadcasting live American football and basketball games, few people took much interest.
I was a little different. Maybe it's my inquisitiveness, but I was sure there must be something more to these sports than just girls in short skirts and big men in bright colored (sic) uniforms running into each other.
At my school they even taught us basketball for a few months, so I had learned how to do a layup. But try as I did, I just didn't really understand what was going on. Maybe it was due to the live games starting at some unearthly hour coupled with the fact that no-one really explained the rules to English people.
Each year I would stay up and watch the beginning of the Super Bowl and fall asleep. And I remember trying very hard to root (sic) for Seattle against Chicago in the 1994 NBA finals before soon realizing I knew the names of a few players but little else apart from that Michael Jordan was supposed to be really good.
Soon I had given up. Basketball, like all American sports, just seemed so boring. All it was was the players running up and down the little court, appearing to score nearly every time. Where was the fun? They always scored.
This year this has all changed. And now I am suddenly starting to believe that I actually like basketball - and not just because of the players with preposterous names like Chauncey Billups and Jamaal Tinsley.
It all started about a month ago with the Hapoel Jerusalem vs Roma ULEB Cup quarterfinal, second leg. I'd heard they were losing by eight points from the first game so I thought id give it a go and watch it. And what a performance from Roger Mason Jr., Horace Jenkins, Mario Austin and the rest of the team. At the start of the game they were losing by about seven and ended up rallying at the end to win by an amazing 17 points.
The next week was the State Cup final, which I had managed to get a ticket for, just out of interest as I had heard so much about this Nokia Arena. And another amazing game - Jerusalem came so close to clawing back a 23-point deficit. I couldn't believe it. I was enjoying an American sport, albeit in Israel.
Since then I've been hooked - I've watched Steve Nash perform for Phoenix and (King) Lebron James score umpteen points for Cleveland. I've seen the pain on the faces of the Duke players after losing to LSU and the elation of the supporters of George Mason. The Euroleague, the NBA, the ULEB Cup - I watch it all these days.
Even the Israeli Basketball Super League has caught my attention (despite the crazy points system where the losing team is still awarded one point, I'm not sure what for).
I was stunned when Elitzur Ashkelon beat Maccabi Rishon (I'm sure you all know that Rishon is one of the only teams that has beaten Maccabi Tel Aviv this season).
I'm not totally sure of all the rules, but I'm learning.
So who knows, maybe this season I'll start to make sense of baseball - there's still more than 160 games to go of the MLB season, which I hear started Sunda

Betar, Hap TA finish in stalemate

The Jerusalem Post
March 27, 2006
Page 12

Things remained the same atop the Israeli Premier League table on Sunday after Hapoel Tel Aviv and Betar Jerusalem played out a high-tempo 1-1 draw at Bloomfield Stadium on Sunday night, with both goals coming in one stunning second-half minute.
The ground was packed to its 16,000 capacity with some 4,000 Jerusalem fans making the trip.
The result means that neither side look like catching runaway leader Maccabi Haifa for the title, while Betar remains in second place, one point above Hapoel.
After a difficult start under French general manager Luis Fernandez, the supporters of the yellow-and-black have been satisfied with the recent play of their newly put together side, which has retained the hope of playing in the UEFA Cup next year if they finish the season in second.
Outgoing Tel Aviv coach Dror Kashtan can be satisfied with his team's performance, following the shock 2-1 last- minute home defeat by lowly Hapoel Kfar Saba last week.
Both goals were scored just after half time. Less than 60 seconds after Hapoel defender Tal Hen powered a header past Betar 'keeper Itzik Kornfein, the Jerusalem side leveled through striker Barak Itzhaki.
Betar dominated for much of the first half while the reds took the majority of the possession in the second period.
For the home side it was former Betar player Yossi Abuksis who ran the show in midfield. Abuksis was at the center of many of Hapoel's best moves, and took the corner which provided the cross for Hen's goal.
Betar showed much quality throughout the team, but Congolese midfielder Mazua Ensombo shined in the center of the field, constantly breaking up the Tel Aviv attacks and providing neat touches to help his team push forward.
The game began at a frantic pace, with each of the teams hoping to capitalize on the charged atmosphere. Just two minutes after the kick off, Betar's Spanish striker David Aganzo slid into Hapoel goalkeeper Shavit Elimelech, getting nowhere near the ball, but no yellow card was given.
The game appeared to come alive in the 18th minute. A surging run by Hapoel's Shai Abutbul was stopped by defender Tomer Haliva and sent for a corner. From the kick, Ensombo pushed forward and although he was fouled, the ball fell to Jerome Leroy who broke into the final third and laid it off to Fabrice Fernandes, who crossed for Leroy. The Frenchman's header was goal-bound before Abuksis blocked the header.
Two minutes before the interval Aganzo took the game on his own shoulders, as he dribbled past four Hapoel defenders, twisting and turning in the penalty area, but his final shot went just wide of the goal.
The goals came in the 47th minute. A Walid Badir shot was pushed away by Kornfein, but the Betar 'keeper was helpless to stop Hen's header from the resulting corner. But the Hapoel fan's had little time to celebrate when Itzhaki took advantage of a Tel Aviv defensive mix-up and latched on to a Fernandes pass to fire home.
The game descended into a tight midfield battle, but neither team could take the advantage and the game ended in a stalemate.

Betar sends a message to Mac Haifa.

Ensombo finds Asulin for match winner at Teddy Stadium

The Jerusalem Post
March 20, 2006
Page 12

Betar Jerusalem recorded a 1-0 victory over reigning Premier League champion Maccabi Haifa at a sold out Teddy Stadium on Sunday night, erasing the memories of the 3-0 drubbing it suffered in Haifa earlier in the season.
In complete contrast to that night at Kiryat Eliezer in December, Betar was hungrier and more complete, controlling the match throughout. French midfielder Jerome Leroy turned in another impressive performance, again showing the quality he displayed in the 3-0 victory over Sakhnin last week.
Congolese midfielder Mazua Ensombo also performed superbly sitting at the back of the midfield and quietly mopping up any trouble, before regularly laying off a simple ball to begin many of the Betar attacks.
It was Ensombo who created the goal for striker Lior Asulin, which turned out to be the match winner. The midfielder floated a perfect ball from outside the penalty box through to Asulin, who headed home with aplomb.
Betar's players knew they needed to take advantage of Hapoel Tel Aviv's final-minute slip-up against Hapoel Kfar Saba on Saturday to claim second place ahead of the Jerusalem side's game against the reds at Bloomfield Stadium next Sunday.
The match was slightly tarnished by the double sending off of Betar defender Tomer Ben-Yosef and Haifa's Rafael Olara after a bust up after the goal.
The result will no doubt please Betar general manager and coach Luis Fernandez, who has been under fire since the State Cup loss to Hakoach Ramat Gan three weeks ago. Fernandez had threatened to resign if he lost by the same scoreline tonight.
The game started at a frantic pace with Haifa's former Betar striker Shlomi Arbitman firing wide of 'keeper Itzik Korenfein after two minutes. A minute later the ball was at the other end for a Betar corner. The Jerusalem side's Spanish forward David Aganzo headed out to Leroy but the Frenchman was unable to get the shot in properly.
Throughout the rest of the first half and most of the game, the yellow-and-black were in control.
Although the Haifa defense, led by center-back and captain Arik Benado, managed to stave off the constant threat from Betar, the goal was one too much for them.
Haifa's Brazilian striker Roberto Colautti was rarely a threat, often getting caught offside and could not even score in the final five minutes of added time.
Betar is two points ahead of archrival Hapoel Tel Aviv and would make the gap even greater with a win next week.
Haifa's loss, its second in a row, will give hope to all the team's in the Premier League that the greens are no longer as invincible as they were for the first 10 matches of the season.

The Last Word 7: A north London rivalry for 4th place

The Jerusalem Post
March 20, 2006
Page 11

On Saturday, Tottenham Hotspur won another English Premier League match, this time 2-0 against Birmingham City. Nothing spectacular about that, perhaps. But the game was seen as a must-win for most Spurs fans, because Tottenham is having, by its standards, an extraordinary season.
The win at St. Andrews meant the team in blue-and- white returned to fourth place in the Premiership standings, taking the spot from arch-rival Arsenal, which had recorded a 3-0 win over Charlton Athletic earlier in the day.
The weekend's results show how much Tottenham has improved as a team over the course of the season, and how Arsenal's league campaign is returning to form after nearly falling off the rails, but also the importance placed on finishing not only first, second or even third, but also fourth.
Until a few years ago, coming fourth in anything was never really seen as a massive success. Sure, in the 20- team Premier League fourth position meant you were one of the best teams, and would likely qualify for the UEFA Cup, but nothing more.
All that changed in 2002 when UEFA announced that the team that finished in fourth place in the Premiership would be given the opportunity to qualify for the Champions League. European soccer's governing body had caused enough of a stir in 1998 when it permitted the team that finished second in England to enter a competition that had previously only been open to the champion of each country in Europe (although that allowed Manchester United to qualify and win its famous treble in 1999).
A few years later the team that finished third was allowed to play a qualifier to get in to the esteemed competition. But to come fourth and be considered a champion seemed nigh on ridiculous. It isn't even worth an Olympic medal.
This will not worry either Tottenham or Arsenal, who have held a healthy rivalry for more than 100 years. Since the glorious title-winning season of 1961, Spurs have had little league success. The club is famous for pretty football that has rarely been good or consistent enough to show stability in the league.
But this year, for this first time since the launch of the Premier League in 1992, Tottenham could break into the top four, and deny Arsenal a place in the world's most prestigious club competition.
The win on Saturday, coming on the heels of a heartbreaking, last-minute loss at Chelsea the previous week, showcased the strengths of this year's Tottenham team.
The center-back pairing of Ledley King and newcomer Michael Dawson have kept things tight at the back. Michael Carrick, always the understudy of Joe Cole at West Ham, has been a revelation in midfield, as has Aaron Lennon, the scorer of a fine goal on Saturday. And strikers Mido, Robbie Keane and Jermaine Defoe have been taking their chances up front.
The one worry that Spurs fans will have at the end of the season is Arsenal's form in this year's Champions League. The Gunners have been doing incredibly well, beating Spanish giants Real Madrid in the last round to book a tie against Italian champion Juventus.
If, however unlikely it seemed at the beginning of the season, Spurs finish fourth, and Arsenal wins the Champions League but comes in fifth in the Premiership, it will be Arsenal and not Spurs who qualify for next season's competition.

Fanning the flames

Traveling to Sakhnin with 'Israel's soccer hooligans'

The Jerusalem Post
March 17, 2006
In Jerusalem, Page 20

It's Monday afternoon, and there's a strangely relaxed atmosphere among the 60 or so Betar Jerusalem supporters waiting in the March sunshine in the parking lot outside their beloved Teddy Stadium.
Suddenly two or three teenagers, who look no more than 15 years old, begin dancing in a circle and singing loudly.
"I love Betar," they chant, "I hate Ahi Natzrat [a former Premier League team], I hate Bnei Sakhnin, there won't ever be any Arabs here."
The crowd hardly flinches - to them this is normal. They are the hard-core "Betarim" (Betar fans) and they are preparing to leave for one of the most important away games of the season - the match at Bnei Sakhnin, the only team in the Israeli Premier League based in an Arab town.
Much has been written about the rivalry between the most right-wing supporters of an Israeli team and those from the small Arab town in Galilee.
The previous match between Betar and Sakhnin at the Doha Stadium in January resulted in riots as the game finished, after Betar fans spilled out onto the pitch to escape a barrage of stones thrown by Sakhnin supporters outside the ground.
Some 20 people were injured after both teams' fans clashed with police who apparently did nothing to stop a group of Sakhnin fans smashing some of the windows of the Betar supporters' buses.
So there is reason to think the Betar fans would be planning revenge. But once we pile on to one of the buses, provided by Betar owner Arkadi Gaydamak, it becomes clear that many of these boys are fueled by racism, amplified by the rhetoric of the politicians.
One such role model is Hebron-based Baruch Marzel, leader of the Jewish National Front party. The American-born politician, who is campaigning for election to the next Knesset, has been hanging around the parking lot handing out yellow and black flyers encouraging supporters "not to forget that [Ehud] Olmert and [Ariel] Sharon gave Bnei Sakhnin NIS 5 million to build a stadium where Arabs incite to murder Jews, while 500,000 children remain hungry."
"What happened last time in Sakhnin was that Jews had a pogrom, by people who almost killed the Jews there, so we have to defend ourselves," Marzel tells In Jerusalem, before admitting that he is not a soccer fan and has never been to a game, let alone to Sakhnin itself.
As soon as the bus leaves Teddy things go from bad to worse. A young supporter sporting a Betar scarf begins chanting, "Death to the Arabs, death to the Arabs." And, without thinking about it, most of the 50 passengers join in.
During the three-hour journey the chants range from "Muhammad is dead" (referring to what the fans believe is a name which represents all Arabs), to more extremist songs praising Baruch Goldstein (who killed 29 Muslims in Hebron's Machpela Cave in 1994) to songs celebrating former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin"s assassination. The songs are catchy until you hear the words.
When the entire bus appears to know every word to a long song praising Rabin"s murderer Yigal Amir, it becomes difficult to remember that we are simply traveling to support our favorite soccer team.
When any of the supporters attempt to sing a regular Betar song few respond. But when one person begins chanting "Kahane Hai" everyone responds joyfully.
Many wear kippot. During the journey a man recites Tefillat Haderech (Travelers' Prayer). Everyone listens quietly, and males not wearing a kippa cover their heads with a scarf. But as soon as they respond, "Amen," a "Death to the Arabs" chant begins.
At one point an Arab truck-driver travels alongside the bus. The supporters scream abuse through the window. He swerves a little and they throw garbage at him and threaten to kill him.
The journey reaches its climax during the climb through Galilee towards Sakhnin. For a time there is quiet, but as the bus drives through a few Arab towns the supporters perk up and resume shouting anti-Arab slogans. And while driving through Sakhnin itself the Betar fans think nothing of screaming at the people on the sidewalk, threatening to kill them. What could the local people of Sakhnin think of these so-called sports fans? "All the Arabs are whores," one youngster says, before adding with a smile, "except those who are sons of whores."
Sixteen-year-old Ya'acov tries to explain why he "hates all Arabs." "I was close to two suicide bombings, including the one at the Sbarro restaurant [in the summer of 2001]. Now I think we should get rid of them all."
But despite the threats of violence, it appears obvious that these people are far less menacing than some of the less aggressive English soccer hooligans.
The Betar fans all seem to have seen the recent movie Green Street Hooligans which tells of the fanatic violent supporters of English team West Ham and their rivalry with notorious London side Millwall.
"We are the football hooligans of Israel," 16-year-old Moshe says. "We are like Millwall and West Ham. I want to go to England and fight with West Ham."
But when the driver of the bus, who is clearly irked by the situation, stops the bus in the center of Sakhnin and threatens to force the youngsters to get off and walk the rest of the way, they soon quiet down, albeit not for long.
Strangely enough, when the fans are finally able to enter the Doha Stadium - the buses arrive 10 minutes after the game started - the atmosphere inside the ground is much less hateful. Perhaps it is something to do with the fact that Betar was 3-0 up at halftime and won easily.
But on the way back to Jerusalem the chants begin again.
Eighteen-year-old Asaf, who is set to join an elite IDF unit, joins in some of the singing. When questioned, however, he appears to disagree with the fans" views.
"I used to be like that," he says, with a tired face. "But now I don"t think like that."
He explains how the army courses he has taken recently and a visit to Poland helped change his opinion.
Asaf continues, "I work with Arabs and often go to Abu Ghosh to eat humous. I have many Arab friends."
He then tries to justify the hatred. "It's just a sports thing," he claims. "We hate Sakhnin and they hate us. Singing songs about [Sakhnin captain] Abas Suan dying of cancer is just part of the game."
But he thinks that calling for the death of all Arabs is going too far. "These kids," he says pointing to the youngsters now resting during the long journey home, "they don"t know anything. Unfortunately it starts at home and in the synagogues. They cannot be convinced to change. They are all so closed-minded. It's like they are the ones living in a ghetto."
Two weeks ago the New Israel Fund launched its "Kick Racism out of Israeli soccer" campaign.
It began on Monday night with a ceremony before the game in Sakhnin. Unfortunately the Betar fans missed the beginning of the game and the ceremony due to arduous police searches.

Betar Jerusalem crushes Bnei Sakhnin

The Jerusalem Post
March 14, 2006
Page 12

Betar Jerusalem cruised to a 3-0 victory over Bnei Sakhnin in a tense atmosphere at Doha Stadium in Sakhnin Monday night.
Two first-half goals from Lior Asulin and a third from Jerome Leroy put the final Premier League game of Matchday 24 out of reach for the hosts.
The yellow-and-black put on an impressive display after a difficult couple of weeks.
Betar's defense, led by veteran left back David Amsalem, withstood the second-half pressure from the Sakhnin attackers.
Before the match began, the 'Kick Racism out of Israeli Football' campaign launched last week by the New Israel Fund was announced.
Jewish and Arab children unfurled a banner proclaiming the anti-racism slogan and the players from both teams wore t-shirts bearing a similar message.
However, the pre-match ceremony to a certain extent missed one of its intended targets. Due to extensive police searches, nearly all of the approximately 300 Betar fans who traveled north for the game did not enter the stadium until 15-25 minutes into the match.
Many of these fans missed the first Betar goal by Asulin. After some fancy midfield work by the Frenchman Leroy, striker David Aganzo threaded the ball through to former Sakhnin forward Asulin, who took his chance to put the visitors up 1-0.
Betar had been dominating the play up until then and continued to control the ball.
Seven minutes later, a mistake by the Sakhnin defense allowed Asulin to shoot the ball past Sakhnin 'keeper Meir Cohen.
By this time, the Jerusalem side was in full flow.
At the 35-minute mark, Betar's Congolese midfielder Mazua Ensombo even tried a speculative volley from outside the box, which was saved by Cohen.
The game was effectively put out of reach a couple of minutes later when the ball broke to Leroy, who pushed forward and lobbed past the hapless Sakhnin 'keeper.
For the remainder of the half, Sakhnin tried to cut into the deficit but came up empty. At one point just before halftime, Pasqual Kondafoni broke forward, but his shot flew harmlessly wide.
The second half saw continued pressure on the Betar goal, where 'keeper Itzik Korenfein was forced to make a series of saves, including a spectacular stop of a header from Shuki Nagar that Korenfein tipped over the bar.
With the well-deserved victory, Betar now sits in third place, two points behind Hapoel Tel Aviv, which surprised Maccabi Haifa on Saturday night.
The yellow-and-black face the reigning league champions at Teddy Stadium on Sunday night knowing they need a win ahead of the crucial matchup against Hapoel Tel Aviv the following week at Bloomfield Stadium.

The Last Word 6: Should Israel play on Shabbat?

The Jerusalem Post
March 13, 2006
Page 10

Shlomo Scharf is not a religious man. But the former Israel national soccer coach had harsh words for Israel Football Association chairman Iche Menahem last week after it emerged that the IFA had apparently made no effort to prevent the qualifying games for the Euro 2008 championships being played on Shabbat.
Scharf, who coached the national side from 1992 to 2000, was flabbergasted when he heard that the much anticipated England vs Israel game at Wembley Stadium next September will be played on a Saturday - hours before sundown.
Calling for Menahem's resignation, he said that during the eight years he ran the national team, Israel never played on Shabbat, and to do so would break a tradition that had been kept for years.
Whether the players realize it or not, the national team represents the Jewish people, and it can only be a positive thing to show the world that Israel has some sort of dedication to Jewish traditions.
And, playing on Shabbat means that religious Jews will have no chance of seeing the Israeli team play, especially in England where the sizeable Jewish community is already incredibly excited at the prospect of Yossi Benayoun and Tal Ben-Haim facing up against David Beckham's England.
Granted, it's never easy working out the scheduling of qualifying games for major international soccer tournaments, where each country has to play the others in its group both home and away. UEFA or FIFA provide a list of dates the games can take place and it is up to representatives from each of the football associations to work out a fixture list that keeps everyone happy.
However, when Menahem flew out to Zagreb a couple of weeks ago to sit down with the leaders of the English, Croatian, Russian, Andorran, Estonian and Macedonian FAs to bang out a deal, he appeared to forget that there is an unofficial policy to at least try and convince the local FAs to ensure the times of the matches do not coincide with the Jewish Sabbath.
Menahem last week seemed to have no idea that the timing of the England match had been decided, let alone that the British Jewish sports body Maccabi GB had been campaigning for the FA to not hold the game during Shabbat.
At first glance you could accuse Scharf of making a mountain out of a mole hill. The point made by British FA representative Simon Johnson was that UEFA decided on the days matches can be played, most of them are on Saturdays, and the London police refuse to allow a late kickoff.
Although the accepted view is that it is impossible to change the dates, if the will was there, then it would not be too difficult to encourage UEFA to allow Israel to play on a Sunday instead of a Saturday.
Take Brigham Young University in deepest Utah, western America. This institution has a student body of 30,000, many of whom are Mormons - believers in the 'Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.' The Mormon laws prevent its followers from working on a Saturday and therefore BYU has managed to convince the NCAA to create a fixture list so their games are never held during the Sabbath.
If the Mormons can do it, why not the mighty Israel. If the IFA realized the importance of this on a national Jewish scale, perhaps they would have made more of an effort rather than sink into a routine of giving in to the whims of the governing football bodies.
Many people could argue that this is totally hypocritical. How can the national team refuse to play on Shabbat when the local league is held during the Sabbath each week? Well first of all, the local teams do not represent all Jewish people.
But maybe this should also be changed. The argument that there are no other times because Sunday is a working day is just rubbish. There are enough timeslots on Saturday night, Friday afternoon, Monday night and even Thursday night to fit the games in.
At the moment it seems incredibly unlikely that this would happen.
According to Johnson, the timing of the England game is 'set in stone.'
But the away games in Russia, Macedonia and Estonia, all scheduled for Saturdays, are probably not. We can only hope that when Menahem leaves his post later this year, his successor understands what the Israel team represents and acts in the correct manner.

Scharf to 'Post': IFA head should resign if Israel must play on Shabbat

The Jerusalem Post
March 9, 2006
Page 12

Former national team coach Shlomo Scharf has called on Israel Football Association chairman Itche Menahem to resign, after learning that four of Israel's European Championship qualifying games could be played on Shabbat and the IFA has made no effort to change the times.
This week the English FA said it has already decided that due to policing requirements the England-Israel match, set to be played at the new Wembley Stadium on September 8, 2007, will be played at either 3:30 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. London time, where Shabbat ends at 8.24 p.m.
Scharf told The Jerusalem Post that Israel never played on Shabbat in the eight years he was head coach of the national team, from 1992 to 2000,
"I think Itche Menahem should resign if he cannot arrange for the game to be played after Shabbat," Scharf said.
Although the strict UEFA and FIFA match schedule has meant that Israel has been forced to play qualifiers on Shabbat in the years since Scharf's tenure - such as the game in Switzerland last year - it has been unofficial IFA policy to only do so after attempting to have the fixture moved.
However, when asked on Wednesday by the Post about efforts made to move the starting time against England, Menahem seemed to have no idea that the time for the England match had been set.
He said he believed the game will be on Saturday night and then blamed English television schedules for the timing when the English FA said it was the decision of the police.
Menahem said he believed the decision on the timing of the game was totally up to the English officials. "They fix the time and we can't change the time because it is an away game," he said. "I agree it is an issue and I will check, but we can only decide the times of our game here in Israel."
IFA spokesman Shaul Eisenberg refused to comment on the matter. When reached on his cell phone, Eisenberg responded: "Send me a fax."
Scharf said: "When I was the coach we moved all the games that were supposed to be on Shabbat because its a holiday for Jewish people. Each time it was going to be [scheduled for Shabbat], we spoke to the FAs and UEFA and they understood."
Since his tenure has come to an end, Scharf has been a harsh critic of the national team playing games on Shabbat.
Many of the players would also prefer to see the games not played on Shabbat.
Ashdod SC's David Revivo said "It"s good for Israel not to play on Shabbat." He added that he hoped Menahem would appeal the game time in London and arrange that the other games be played on Saturday evenings.
Maccabi Haifa's Alon Harazi preferred not to speak about the national team, but said he is part of an effort among Premier League players to have league games moved to weekdays.
The IFA sent four representatives to a meeting in Dublin last month, which was arranged so that teams can outline their basic scheduling demands ahead of the official scheduling meeting.
A senior member of the Estonian FA, who was part of the country"s delegation to the schedule arrangement meeting, said the Israelis had made no mention of a need to not play Saturday games during the daytime.
And Simon Johnson of the English FA said that the Israelis" only demand was to not play on the September 12, 2007 fixture day, which falls on Rosh Hashana.
"It was quite a tense meeting where it was difficult to arrange the calendar and nobody was talking about the times of the games, only the dates," she said. "It is UEFA who makes the dates so you can"t be too picky."
The dates for the qualifiying games for Euro 2008 were announced last week after two rounds of meetings between Israel and the six other countries in Group E - England, Estonia, Russia, Macedonia, Croatia and Andorra.
Israel always plays the Saturday home matches after sundown, but the times of the four away games that will be played on a Saturday are to be set by the host nation.
Of the six away games Israel must play over the 13- month qualifying period, four of the games - at Estonia, Russia, Macedonia and England - are planned for Saturdays.
This week English FA corporate affairs director Simon Johnson said he had attempted to arrange for the England vs Israel game to be held after Shabbat to allow local Jewish fans to attend.
But he stressed the Israelis had not protested the time of the game, even though the local Jewish sports association, Maccabi GB, had campaigned for the time to be changed.
Johnson said: "It is set as stone because an agreement has been reached. We know that not only was Maccabi asking for the game not to be played on Shabbat, we the FA were also trying to get the game not played on a Saturday as well.
"What made it quite difficult was that it was important to the Israeli FA, and we shared this, that they did not play on erev Rosh Hashana which is a Wednesday night. That was when we would have preferred to play Israel.
"And so in the agreement, and remember there were six other countries party to the agreement, they decided they would have to play us on the Saturday afternoon."

Barnes kicks off anti-racism campaign in Sakhnin

The Jerusalem Post
March 7, 2006
Page 12

The players of Bnei Sakhnin and Betar Jerusalem will stand together wearing t-shirts bearing anti-racism slogans before their Premier League match next week as part of the "Kick Racism out of Israeli Football" campaign, it was announced at Monday's launch.
A delegation from the English Football Association, which included England legend John Barnes, met with their Israel Football Association counterparts in Tel Aviv on Monday morning to discuss methods of tackling racism in Israeli soccer.
The new campaign, instigated by the New Israel Fund, follows a similar successful scheme that has been running for more than 10 years in the UK.
Simon Johnson, director of corporate affairs at the English FA, admitted that the problems of racism against black players in British soccer stadiums is not directly comparable to the problem of anti-Arab chanting in Israel. But he said he hoped the IFA can learn from the methods used by the English FA.
"When you take high profile role models such as players and the fans see them speaking out against racism it can make a huge difference," Johnson said.
Describing how he suffered massive racial abuse during his playing days with Watford and Liverpool, Barnes added, "As a player, I wrestled with my conscience about getting involved. But I realized how powerful a political tool football is."
The match between Betar and Sakhnin will be played at Doha Stadium in Sakhnin, the site of the now infamous set of violent confrontations involving the two sets of fans and police following a match last month. Spectators and officers were injured after Sakhnin supporters threw stones at Betar fans, who were then allowed onto the field, which was followed by fisticuffs.
Bnei Sakhnin captain Abas Suan, who is often the subject of abuse from the Jerusalem supporters, said he is excited by the plans and the campaign.
"There is no problem between the players, just between the fans," Suan said. "It is important to involve the players because they can change a lot."
Former Hapoel Tel Aviv goalkeeper Arieh Alter, now the general manager of the Israeli players association, came up with the idea of the t-shirts.
"I think this is the first step, but it is very important," Alter said at Doha Stadium on Monday. "When the fans on both sides see that everyone is together, it will show that the game is not a war. Everyone should come to enjoy the show in a friendly atmosphere."
The delegation, which arrived in Israel on Sunday, will continue its mission in Jerusalem on Tuesday with meetings with President Moshe Katsav and a number of MKs.

The Last Word 5: The magic of the cup

The Jerusalem Post
March 6, 2006
Page 10

At theirbest, soccer's knockout cup competitions provide some of the most magical and fascinating moments in sports. And last weekend's ties didn't disappoint.
Teams from lower divisions pitted their skills against the so-called superpowers of local soccer - and some of them even won!
Having grown up on the tradition of the English FA Cup, I might have dismissed the Israeli version as being largely irrelevant, as many English soccer fans in this country dismiss the Israeli Premier League.
But just as I have somehow been strangely drawn into the battle for supremacy in Israel's top division, on Saturday I awoke to the fantastic drama created by the Israeli version.
Perhaps Israeli soccer is more open to cup upsets than the English game, with few of even the top flight sides playing high quality soccer. It seemed to be that way on Saturday when supposedly mighty Betar Jerusalem and Maccabi Tel Aviv were each dumped out of the State Cup in quick succession by teams from the National League.
Betar was soundly outplayed by Hakoach Ramat Gan, losing 1-0 in the last minute, while Maccabi Tel Aviv was completely embarrassed by Hapoel Acre, going down by an incredible 4-0 scoreline.
Both Betar and Maccabi came into this season with high hopes. No more so than the Tel Aviv team that held the - now slightly embarrassing - press conference last summer in which four of the more experienced Israeli players were revealed as the local version of the 'Galacticos.'
How Eyal Berkovic, Avi Nimni, Giovanni Rosso and Avi Yechiel could have been compared to any Real Madrid players, let alone Zidane, Ronaldo et al, is anyone's guess. But it produced enough confidence to encourage a reported 10,000 fans to buy season tickets for the yellow- and-blue's games at Bloomfield Stadium.
Just over six months later and the dream of a title in the club's centenary year has been totally smashed by Maccabi Haifa's dominance. And then, any chance of retaining the coveted State Cup went out the window on Saturday evening.
For Betar, the disappointment amongst its faithful fans will have been just as hard-felt. Arkadi Gaydamak, who was reported to have been furious about Saturday's loss, has plowed millions of shekels into the club.
Following a string of poor league performances, he may be beginning to question the decision to give the general manager job to Frenchman Luis Fernandez.
What can not be denied is the great sporting contests these cup games have provided. The Ramat Gan and Acre fans will hope their clubs will make it all the way to the final and even have a chance of winning the competition. This is clearly not out of the question. A non-top division team has made it to the State Cup Final each of the last three years, with Hapoel Ramat Gan even managing to win the whole thing in 2003, catapulting the club into the UEFA cup.
Betar losing to Ramat Gan may not have the worldwide impact of Manchester United's draw with Burton Albion in January or the time Wrexham beat Arsenal in 1992 - but for the local fans it was the equivalent of these legendary encounters.

The Last Word 4: Are Israeli soccer fans really racist?

The Jerusalem Post
February 27, 2006
Page 10

Back in the 1970s black supporters and players were simply not welcome at a large number of soccer grounds in the UK. English soccer was largely the realm of white, working class people, and when black players began to appear in the first teams of top club sides, they were often greeted with racist taunts and pelted with bananas.
Thirty years later, the picture is very different. England has become a truly multicultural country. Although there are still extremist elements around, by and large the problem of racism in football has disappeared. It would be rare to find a soccer fan who would have a problem with Ashley Cole, Patrick Vieira or Claude Makalele joining their favorite team simply because they are not white.
As well as the natural progression in English society, the Kick Racism Out of Football campaign, launched 12 years ago, helped cement the idea that racism was totally unacceptable in English soccer.
Last week it was announced that an Israeli-British charity is bringing English legend John Barnes to Israel for the launch of Kick It Out Israel - an attempt to rid Israeli soccer of what many people see as the same racism problem that once plagued the UK game.
These plans may be well intended, but they beg the question: Can you really compare Israeli and English racism in soccer, and will it ever be possible to kick racism out of Israeli soccer?
Although there are an increasing number of African players in the Israeli Premier League, from Congolese midfielder Mazua Ensombo at Betar Jerusalem to Nigerian-born and soon-to-be Israeli Toto Tamuz at Hapoel Petah Tikva, it is the fans' attitude towards Arab players that most concerns anti-racism campaigners.
These champions of political correctness are always quick to accuse Betar fans of being the most racist of them all. The Jerusalem side has never employed an Arab player, and the mere suggestion by owner Arkadi Gaydamak that the team acquire the services of Bnei Sakhnin captain Abas Suan drew massive protests from hard-core Betar supporters.
At nearly every match Betar supporters sing about how much they hate Bnei Sakhnin and how they will never accept an Arab player at the club.
This may appear on the face of it to be mere racism, comparable with an English right-wing National Front supporter saying he doesn't want any black players at his team.
Although the anti-Arab chanting is clearly a problem, it is important to acknowledge the very different backgrounds between Brits and Israelis.
While one must, of course, be totally dismissive of such discrimination, it is obvious that the political and sociological tensions between the communities have played a large part in the continuing problems, and the anti-Arab chants can be seen as an expression of this.
The majority of Betar fans are working class, Likud supporting, Sephardim, many of whose families came to Israel after being forced out of Muslim countries such as Iraq and Syria, and who have witnessed the murderous results of Palestinians terrorism.
For these Betarim, there is little difference between the Arabs of the West Bank and those living in the Galilee.
It is also important to note that it is not all one-way traffic. Having witnessed the violence at Doha Stadium in Sakhnin in January, I can testify to the fact that the Bnei Sakhnin supporters are often as much to blame.
I was forced to travel back to Jerusalem in a bus with a massive hole in one of the windows after fans of the Arab team went around smashing the windows of the Betar buses before the Jerusalem fans were allowed out of the stadium.
And it is not only Betar supporters who appear to have a gripe with Arabs. A Channel 1 documentary on the subject broadcast last year revealed that most Israeli clubs have a core of right-wing supporters who are, to put it mildly, anti-Arab.
This can not be excused, but the background can also not be ignored. Perhaps the situation can be better compared to the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers in Scotland, where until 1989 no Catholic ever played for Rangers. When former Celtic player Mo Johnston signed for Rangers, many fans demonstrated outside Ibrox Stadium burning their scarves and season tickets. But even this comparison is simplifying the issue.
Ultimately, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs in soccer is more than just racism. It is a symptom of the tensions within this country and the entire region. Until the conundrum of Arabs and Jews making peace with each other is solved, it will be nigh on impossible - though all power to those who do - to convince many Jewish-Israeli soccer fans that they should accept Arabs with open arms.

The Last Word 3: The Champions League is back

The Jerusalem Post
February 12, 2006
Page 11

At long last, after a break of more than two months, the UEFA Champions League returns Tuesday night. And it will definitely be worth the wait, with the round of 16 throwing up some mouthwatering matchups - from Bayern Munich vs Milan to Arsenal vs Real Madrid, not forgetting the big one, the rematch, Chelsea vs Barcelona.
Once again, what has become the most prestigious club competition in the world has come up trumps and captured the attention and hearts of soccer fans around the world.
It hasn't always been like this. When the Champions League was first launched in 1992, it was viewed with distinct cynicism and trepidation. What was wrong with the original European Cup knockout format?, people asked. The talk among soccer fans was that the top clubs in Europe were planning to breakaway and launch a 'European Super League,' taking all the TV money and leaving the lesser clubs stranded.
As the competition expanded in its early years, soccer fans grew ever more concerned that UEFA was squeezing the passion and real fans out of European competition and was simply interested in making as much money as possible.
When it was announced that the team that came in fourth place in the English Premier League would be allowed to enter the qualifying stages for the Champions League, the situation became laughable. In what way could you call a team finishing in fourth place a champion?
But UEFA saw the error of its ways and trimmed the tournament down to just the best teams in Europe, and now appears to have got it right.
Even though Liverpool finished fifth in the Premiership last season, which soccer fan can not get excited at the prospect of the Reds facing the Benfica side that defeated Manchester United back in December, dumping Alex Ferguson's side out of the competition at the earliest stage for the first time?
Fans of soccer around the world can sit back over the next two nights and witness some of the best players battling it out to carry their teams through to the next stage.
In one of the most exciting prospects, on Tuesday night David Beckham will face an English team in official competition for the first time since he moved to the Spanish giants. Madrid has returned to form in recent weeks after a bumpy start to the season and will be the favorite to defeat a developing Arsenal side at the Bernabeu.
But the tie of the round is of course the English champion against the Spanish league winner. After last year's fiery encounters, both Chelsea's and Barcelona's players will find no difficulties firing themselves up for Wednesday's game at Stamford Bridge.
Ronaldinho is back for the Catalan team and showed enough touches of brilliance in the 5-1 win over Real Betis on Sunday to worry Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho.
However, after last season's scintillating match in London, in which Chelsea was ahead 3-0 after half an hour, the English supporters will know that anything can happen.
Finally, a little word for the minnows left in the tournament. Glasgow's Rangers have been going through a tough period domestically and will be looking forward to the away game at Spanish side Villareal. The draw has been kind to the Scottish club and given it the best chance possible to progress to the quarterfinals.
Let the games begin!

Satayin, Abramski triumph at Ein Gedi half marathon

The Jerusalem Post
February 19, 2006
Page 11

Israeli Haile Satayin blitzed the opposition at the Ein Gedi half marathon on Saturday, finishing in a time of one hour, eight minutes and 40 seconds.
Ethiopian Sisay Asaye came second, crossing the finish line two minutes and 24 seconds later, and Israeli Tadesse Darege (1:11:13) placed third.
As expected, Israeli marathon champion Nili Abramski was the fastest woman. The 36-year-old athlete, who was competing at Ein Gedi for 15th year in a row, finished in 1:22:23. Orna Blau (1:29:14) came in second and Jessica Misonishinik (1:36:34) third.
Despite predictions of "ideal conditions" by organizers at the opening ceremony on Friday night, many of the participants complained of strong winds blowing at them in the second half of the course.
Satayin, 44, had mixed feelings about his result. "It was hard. It was hot and there was strong wind," he told The Jerusalem Post. "I wasn"t satisfied with my time. Ive run much faster in the past, sometimes under one hour and four minutes."
More than 700 people took part in the half marathon, the largest field in the 24-year history of the event, which saw the participants run along Road 90 along the Dead Sea from the Ein Gedi Spa to Masada and back again.
An exhausted Abramski said she had felt comfortable in the first half but had found the return stretch far more difficult.
"The first half was excellent, but it was having the wind behind me which made it feel so good," she said. "But the second half was really difficult as I had to run all by myself and it felt like I was running into a wall of wind."
The event also included a 10-kilometer run with 600 participants, a children"s run and a hand-controlled bicycle event for disabled athletes.
The 10K was won by Svanach Dastau in 32:25, while the fastest woman was Sevetlana Bachmend (38:55).
Since its inception the half marathon and surrounding races have been used to bring together participants from all round the world to promote peace. This year, in addition to a number of participants from the Palestinian Authority, a group of eight young Jordanian runners competed in the 10K.
Dahab Abdallah Ahmed, 19 was the fastest Jordanian in 34:34.
Commenting on the efforts of the organizers to bring together so many people from different races and religions, Abramski said: "It is a lovely idea. If everybody will do sports more... it will take the focus from the politics and take it to different places.
"When you run it really makes you feel less aggressive, when you finish a race you feel so peaceful you never want to fight about anything and you like to share the land with everybody."
Nujidat Gazi, sports supervisor from the Israeli Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, was instrumental in bringing the Jordanian group to Israel. "The moment you come in contact with people, you know how anxious they are for peace, for living a normal life and doing what they love together," he said. "You feel the happiness on the faces of people from both sides. We at the ministry use these sports as a bridge.

The Last Word 2: Can Gaydamak buy success for Betar?

The Jerusalem Post
February 13, 2006
Page 10

Last week Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich was in Israel, apparently to attend a preseason tournament featuring four Russian soccer teams.
What became obvious very soon after his arrival in the country was that the Chelsea chairman was not simply here to watch a few friendly matches.
In between visits to the Western Wall, Abramovich was widely featured in the Israeli media meeting with Israeli-Russian businessman Lev Leviev and Avraham Grant, the coach of Israel's national soccer team who will take over as coach of Hapoel Tel Aviv after the end of this season.
Leviev, who bought Hapoel Tel Aviv last month, is the latest sugar daddy to pump his money into a soccer team in the hope of transforming it into a world-leading brand.
Abramovich, who was consistently seen with Chelsea's sporting director Frank Arnesen during his Israel trip, is believed to be forging a link between the two clubs.
Hapoel Tel Aviv is currently sitting in second place in the Israeli Premier League standings, two points in front of Betar Jerusalem, another club enjoying the backing of a rich Russian Jew.
This time last year it would have been laughable to compare Betar to soon-to-be-crowned English Premiership winner Chelsea, apart from the fact that both teams play in capital cities.
The London club has been built on both the seemingly unlimited funds of Abramovich and the acquisition of coach Jose Mourinho to create a formidable side. The Jerusalem team was nothing but consistently inconsistent.
Not only was the Israeli club deep in debt, but first-team affairs were run by the tactically inept Eli Ohana, who looked like he had no chance of bringing joy to the club's success-starved, incredibly loyal supporters.
Fast forward a year and the situation could not be more different. Billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak has promised to make Betar into a runaway success and a symbol of the Jewish people. And maybe he can.
Until this weekend things did not appear to be going completely according to plan.
Gaydamak has appeared to be more interested in attracting big names than forming soccer harmony.
Even though Dutch coach Ton Caanen had created a new atmosphere and optimism in the club when he joined in October, the Russian decided that Luis Fernandez, a former Paris Saint Germain and Athletico Bilbao manager, would be more suitable in terms of raising the profile of Betar; and Caanen was out.
Fernandez seemed more interested in bringing in players he had worked with rather than players that will be able to work together. Frenchmen Jerome Leroy (who is currently injured) and Fabrice Fernandes were soon followed by Spaniard David Aganzo, and Israeli Gal Alberman. All good players, but last week's dismal performance at home against Ashdod SC seemed to show that maybe money won't buy success.
However, on Saturday night the tables were turned. Suddenly, Fernandez's team performed. The 3-0 away win over a tough Hapoel Petah Tikva team has instilled hope that perhaps Fernandez will soon be able to bring a championship to Teddy Stadium for the first time since 1999.
Fernandes provided a great cross for Aviram Bruchian to head in the first goal. Aganzo looked tricky throughout and scored a lovely freekick for the second. Substitutes Barak Itzhaki and Maor Melikson combined for the third. What was most impressive was how solid the team looked at the back, with Betar's elder statesman David Amsalem shoring up the center of the defense in the absence of Igor Mitreski and Tomer Ben-Yosef.
There have been many attempts to buy success in soccer, from Blackburn Rovers to Real Madrid, and so far the jury is still out on the Gaydamak-Betar experiment. But, whatever happens with Hapoel Tel Aviv next season, the rivalry with Betar won't just be for second place - both will be challenging Maccabi Haifa for the top spot.

Betar bows to Dynamo Moscow

The Jerusalem Post
February 8, 2006
Page 12

Teddy Stadium was packed to the rafters on Tuesday night as Betar Jerusalem took on Russian giants Dynamo Moscow in a friendly game which raised an estimated NIS 200,000 for the children's ward at Hadassah-University Hospital at Ein Kerem.
The match, which ended in a 1-0 defeat for the Jerusalem side, began in a festive atmosphere. Israeli star singer Sarit Hadad belted out many of her hits before introducing Betar owner Arkadi Gaydamak to the 19,000 crowd.
The large attendance had much to do with the cheap price of tickets as well as the fact that Gaydamak had organized for some 6,000 youngsters and Russian immigrants to be bused in to the capital for the game at his own expense.
The match itself was a less than inspiring affair, with neither side creating many opportunities in a drab first half.
Betar"s second-string goalkeeper Guy Soloman was one of the best players on the pitch, making a number of crucial saves against Moscow striker Dimitri Bolokin.
Newly signed midfielder Fabrice Fernandes also performed well but it was the Russian side which looked the sharper in the first period, which ended goalless.
The second half began in the same manner as the first, with neither team looking likely to score. But in the 72nd minute a mistake by Gal Alberman let Igor Samshov in for the Russians, who scored with a delicate chip over substitute goalkeeper Itzik Kornfein.
The introduction of skillful Spanish striker David Aganzo, who has already become a favourite of the Teddy crowd, failed to inspire the yellow-and-black, and Betar fell to its third consecutive defeat in three home games.
Following the game, Gaydamak said the high attendance shows that "the Israelis want to see the football."
He added: "It was a friendly game from all points of view. We are already working with the hospital and it is something we should help, especially the children"s department."

The Last Word 1: Israel vs England - who to root for?

Having made aliya, most olim aim to immerse themselves into Israeli society and take on the local culture. The national soccer team's matches in Ramat Gan have always provided an opportunity for newly-arrived and long-term residents of Israel to join together with their fellow countrymen and show their true Zionist values.
Who can forget the atmosphere in March last year as Israel somehow managed to gain credible draws against Ireland and France?
However, on Friday, the thousands of Englishmen living in Israel were handed both an exciting prospect and a test of their commitment to this country when England and Israel were drawn together in Group E of the qualifying round for the 2008 European championships.
Now the age-old question, "Who would you support if England played Israel?", has to be answered. Never before have the two countries faced each other in a competitive game.
Many of the Brits who will be fervently cheering on Rooney, Beckham and Co. during this summer's World Cup (if they can afford the pay-TV prices) will be willing to forgo their national upbringing and pledge their allegiance to Dror Kashtan's side.
But for others it won't be so easy. Growing up in England, the national team is pervasive, especially during major tournaments. When England is playing in a World Cup or European Championship finals, the team"s fortunes seem to be the main news story and talking point wherever you go, and a lifetime of support may leave its mark on some.
There were few soccer fans, for example, who stayed in bed that Friday morning in June 2002 when England played Brazil in a World Cup quarterfinal.
What soccer fans always crave is that little bit of quality to go with the passion. And the Israel vs England game promises to provide just that, and more. On paper it seems that Israel has no chance to beat the English. Israel has only ever qualified for one major tournament - the 1970 World Cup - and is 35 places below England in the FIFA rankings.
However, the Israelis have clearly been improving in recent years and only just missed out on qualification for this summer"s World Cup. Another home draw against a top team is not out of the question.
Yossi Benayoun's success at West Ham and the potential of Yaniv Katan to gain Premiership experience alongside him can only help the national team.
There is also the prospect of emerging youngsters such as Betar Jerusalem's Maor Melikson and Aviram Bruchian and Maccabi Haifa's Shlomi Arbitman making an impact, as well as the other more established stars.
For its part, England's experience and class can not be doubted. The team exudes quality, from John Terry in central defense through to Lampard and Rooney. But, the side lacks strength in depth and, with a few injuries, England could be vulnerable, as seen in its shock defeat to Northern Ireland in last year"s World Cup campaign.
One thing the two sides will have in common will be a new manager/coach at the helm. Kashtan, one of the most successful Israeli coaches, has already been named as the man taking charge of the Israeli team, but as yet we do not know who will replace Sven Goran Eriksson. If, as feared by many fans, Bolton boss Sam Allardyce gets the job, then who knows what will happen!
Either way, whenever the matches will be held (all the teams in the group will meet next month to decide the schedule), they will be full of excitement and passion. Expect two unforgettable nights. Let's just hope the English fans behave themselves as well as the Irish did when they came to Tel Aviv.