Postcard from Haifa - The rise of Hapoel Haifa

Sun, Feb 11 2018

Hapoel Haifa’s Eden Ben Basat (left) in action for Israel in Windsor Park in 2014 World Cup Qualifier Credit: Jason O'Callaghan

Michael Hanley examines the stark contrast in form between the two clubs in Haifa as the unheralded Hapoel battle it out at the top of the Israeli Premier League whilst decorated Maccabi are facing into relegation battle.


It is a cold Saturday afternoon in February in the Northern Israeli city of Haifa, a passing Mediterranean storm has just drenched those who were braving the elements with a stroll on the windswept boardwalk. The beachfront is deserted at this time of year. The cafes and restaurants that are alive during summer have the hatches well and truly battened down and save for a few surfers who are reveling in the rough conditions.


It is safe to assume that the city’s population have stayed indoors thinking of the spring – which has arrived on the calendar but maybe not on the weather front. This reporter enjoyed warmer climes on my last visit to the city when in June I covered Albania’s 3-0 defeat of the hosts in a World Cup qualifier.


One could be forgiven for assuming there is nothing of note happening in town today however in the city’s brand new football stadium Hapoel Haifa are locked in a tense struggle with Bnei Saknin in the Ligat Ha’al’s early kick off.


Saturday afternoon fixtures in Israel are usually poorly attended as Shabbat prevents public transport from running until darkness falls on Saturday evening when shops, cafes and bars open up again to the new week.


The fixture planners try to reserve the Saturday afternoon slot for some of the lesser clubs with low support numbers compared to the bigger clubs like Maccabi Haifa, Beitar Jerusalem and Dundalk’s opponents from the 2016 Europa League group stages Maccabi Tel Aviv.


Usually team likes Saknin and Hapoel Haifa are decent candidates for such an affair, traditionally both spend most of their season flirting with the lower echelons of the division and by the middle of March when they have usually achieved safety, their season peters out and those in attendance follow suit.


The only thing different about this match is that an 83rd minute Gal Aral goal has put Hapoel Haifa in second place. Those in the paltry 3,000 attendance are delirious, their cheers echo around the empty stands of this 30, 000 capacity stadium. Hapoel have consolidated their best position in almost 19 years.  


Their manager Nir Klinger describes his players as “heroes” in the post match press conference. However in this football mad city, it seems that the majority are oblivious to what is taking place and are preparing themselves for the main event later that night as Maccabi Haifa a club in turmoil visit Beitar Jerusalem in a game that occupies that night prime time TV slot.


Hapoel Haifa are very much second to Maccabi in this city. Maccabi will take 5,000 away fans to Jerusalem and it is their abject performance in a 3-1 defeat at a raucous Tedi stadium that occupies the Sunday morning back pages and airwaves.


Since winning their only title in 1999, Hapoel Haifa’s fortunes have been bleak. Liquidated in 2001 after their financially plagued owner’s tragic suicide, they were consigned to the second division and since their return to the premier league in 2008, they have failed to ever finish above Maccabi or indeed in the top six clubs who playoff for the title each season.


The club, whose traditional working class support base from outside the city, share the impressive Sami Ofer stadium with their more illustrious rivals. Under Klinger’s guidance since March 2017, they finished last season in eight spot, six points above the relegation zone.


Two acquisitions by Klinger have been key to their success this term. The signing of attacking players Eden Ben Basat and Alon Turgeman from Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa respectively has generated 16 of the side’s 29 goals this season.


Basat, capped 13 times by Israel and now aged 31 has experience with Toulouse in Ligue 1. The player scored a brace against Northern Ireland during a 2013 World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park. He has formed a potent partnership with Alon Turgeman who struggled for gametime with Maccabi.  


The defense is marshalled by Romanian Gabriel Tamas who joined from Steau Bucharest and the Swede Rassie Sjostedt. The club boasts the best defensive record in Ligat Ha’al with only 16 goals conceded in 21 matches. Homegrown talent is a feature of the side also, Liran Sardal who captained the side against Saknin and Gal Arel who scored the winner are products of the club’s very successful youth policy and for a side who are operating on a tight budget this is key to their success.


Hapoel’s start to the season caught the league off guard with seven victories in nine games. The absence of Turgeman and Ben Basat through injury in January hurt the side. However after this third win on the bounce Klinger was full of praise for his hardworking side.


 “We've been playing for almost a month without our attackers,” said Klinger who earned 83 caps as a player with Israel.  “We have a lot of constraints and we always solve them and the credit comes to the players. They are heroes."


Meanwhile Maccabi Haifa currently languish in 10th place in the fourteen team Premier League with an abject record of just one win in their last 11 games. Not great for a club that boasts a record that includes twelve championships since 1984 and two Champions League group stage appearances.


Since finishing runners up to Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2013, Maccabi Haifa have regressed, unable to compete with Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Be’er Sheva for league honours. Former club stalwart and now vocal media personalities Yaniv Katan and Eyal Berkovic have taken to the airways in recent times to even explore the possibility that a curse has been put on the club since moving to their new home in 2014 such has the side’s luck been.


Owner Yaakov Shakar has continued to invest heavily in the club, however performances on the pitch have been listless with the players demonstrating a lack of confidence. What drains Maccabi fans is that players who flopped at the club are now prospering elsewhere in the league.


Manager Guy Luzon, the former Standard Liege and Charlton boss, left via mutual consent in November with Dutchman Fred Rutten, who managed PSV and Schalke 04 previously, assuming responsibilities.


However, whilst the players are playing with more structure, the results have not improved. Last Summer Shachar and Luzon set about assembling a team that on paper could at least challenge for a title, defenders Rami Gershon was signed from Gent, along with PAOK striker Stefanos Athanasiadis (who played against Shamrock Rovers in the 2011 Europa League).


For the club’s supporters their low league position is not helped by their rivals sitting up towards the top of the league and it will be an intriguing end to the season in the city one club looking to claim the league title while the other simply is looking to survive in the top flight.