False messiah

Eyal Berkovic’s return to Israeli football has not gone well, despite the considerable size of his ego, as Shaul Adar reports 

After playing for five English clubs and Celtic, Eyal Berkovic moved back to Israel this summer with Maccabi Tel Aviv. His season’s statistics make sad reading – nine starts, subbed seven times, coming on as a sub twice, no assists and only one goal. His team scored more goals without him on the field. His only contribution seems to be in coining a new Hebrew idiom: “I went to consult with the crocodiles.”

This rendezvous made national headlines when Berkovic preferred to meet an old friend at a crocodile farm near the Sea of Galilee rather then take part in a team training session after being dropped from the starting XI for the first time. He disappeared for 24 hours and was “feeling hurt and contemplating his future”, his wife, Tali, told the media. Then he failed to show for a game after discovering that he would be a substitute, sending a text message claiming that he was ill. At the beginning of December Berkovic skipped another training session. But so far he is staying put, although as anonymous officials at the club told journalists, “he won’t be missed around here”. The player warned that any unpleasant remarks from his bosses may change his mind.

Berkovic joined Israel’s biggest club only after his childhood favourites, Maccabi Haifa, turned him down. In typical Berkovic style, he swore revenge against Haifa and their president and promised to bring the double to Tel Aviv. Almost 10,000 season tickets, a national record, were sold and a team of Israeli galácticos and proven foreign stars were assembled for the club’s centenary year. It backfired spectacularly: the team were knocked out of the UEFA Cup by Apoel Nicosia and Berkovic then gave a jaw-dropping interview to a heavyweight political TV show, attacking national coach Avraham Grant and demanding to be appointed as his replacement. He also criticised the way that the Maccabi Tel Aviv squad had been assembled and suggested that two of the team’s stars who play alongside him in midfield should be dropped. Berkovic also revealed that every time he didn’t start a game, he wanted the team to lose. During a match, he was also caught by TV cameras muttering to himself: “Why do I need this rubbish?”

The interview was the last straw for Maccabi coach Nir Klinger, who demanded that Berkovic should not attack Grant and dropped him for the next match. This led to the crocodile summit and later to a peace treaty: Berkovic demanded and received a guarantee that he would be informed when he is not in the starting line-up and even got an exemption from warming up thoroughly before coming on as a sub. At that point both sides seemed happy to cut their losses and part ways, but the huge number of season-tickets holders became a liability.

Since then Klinger has been fired and Maccabi Tel Aviv have 17 points and 14 goals from 14 games. They trail Maccabi Haifa by 20 points. The club’s galácticos concept has been made to look absurd and Berkovic, who came as “the centenary messiah”, is as popular in Tel Aviv as in the East End of Glasgow. Maccabi have since appointed Ton Kannen, a no-nonsense Dutch coach who prepares the team meticulously for each game and insists that his players address him as “Mr Kannen” (a type of formality unheard of in Israeli football). It may be Berkovic’s last chance to bow out with some dignity. But Martin O’Neill and Kevin Keegan may have some useful tips for the Dutchman.

From WSC 228 February 2006. What was happening this month