Chelsea vs Maccabi Tel Aviv: Blues face aspiring club - thanks to former Manchester United winger Jordi Cruyff and owner Mitchell Goldhar

Canadian billionaire owner Mitchell Goldhar also responsible

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The Independent Online

Mitchell Goldhar is a Canadian retail and real estate billionaire who once spent $1.2million on a ‘Team Canada’ ice hockey jersey worn in the famous ‘Summit Series’ against the USSR in 1972. Jordi Cruyff, of course, is the former Barcelona, Manchester United and Netherlands midfielder, son of Johan.

Between them Goldhar and Cruyff have made this Maccabi Tel Aviv side, who visit Stamford Bridge Wednesday evening, arguably the best team in the history of Israeli club football.

Goldhar, who made his fortune bringing Walmart into Canada, bought the club in 2010. Cruyff had been a manager first in Malta, then in Cyprus, and wanted a new challenge. So Goldhar recruited Cruyff to be his sporting director in April 2012, since when Maccabi – after 10 years of drift – have won everything in sight.

 

Maccabi have won three consecutive Israeli Premier League titles, which is impressive enough, but their being at Chelsea is the biggest achievement of all. Maccabi had not played in the Champions League group stage since 2004 but this season they have won three qualification ties, including beating Viktoria Plzen and FC Basel, to be here.

Although the game against Chelsea represents a climax of sorts for Goldhar and Cruyff’s work, the club are keen to make themselves part of the football furniture.

“The project is for continued and sustained European participation,” explains chief executive Martin Bain, formerly of Rangers, to The Independent. “That participation does not always have to be Champions League. But it does help us to fast-track an awful lot of the aspirations that we have.”

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Cruyff spent four years with Manchester United, but only played 46 matches before moving to Spain

 

Those aspirations, in short, are to turn Maccabi into a team with the standards and practices of a big European side. “What underpinned Mitch’s project,” says Bain, remember his recruitment in 2014, “was that he talked about culture, integrity, and how he wanted to develop the professionalism and put in some of the characteristics of a large European football club.”

That is what Goldhar wanted and Cruyff had the expertise to build it. Before Cruyff arrived, Maccabi training sessions were a free-for-all, with the media sitting on the bench with the players and fans walking around the pitches. That does not happen now.

“What Jordi has certainly brought to the party is realism,” Bain explains. “With that realism he has brought a very rigid footballing structure. Jordi brought in a lot of disciplines and procedures from his experience and his own European pedigree.” With a new scouting structure, GPS trackers in training and nutritional rules Cruyff has transformed the daily life of the club.

The most important lever Cruyff has to control the club is his appointment of coaches, where he has imposed a European passing style while changing coach at least once a year. First there was Oscar Garcia, plucked from Barcelona under-19s, who won the 2012-13 title. Then Paulo Sousa, who won the league the following year. Garcia returned briefly, but was replaced by Pako Ayesteran, who won the domestic treble last year, only to be dismissed.

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Maccabi beat Viktoria Plzen and FC Basel to get to the group stages

 

That ruthless move was because Cruyff did not think the amiable Ayesteran was extracting the maximum from the players. “I know how hard it was for him, but still he was not afraid to make the decision,” Cruyff’s father Johan wrote in De Telegraaf. “As it should be at the highest level.”

Ayesteran was replaced with Slavisa Jokanovic – Bain praises his “very disciplined approach” - after the Serb walked out of Watford when they only offered him a £500,000 salary on promotion to the Premier League.

As wealthy as Goldhar is, though, he has not spent recklessly since buying Maccabi. The club is well run and their ambition is to find a way to make a profit on the transfer market.

“We realised that with the limited commercial opportunities here from broadcast media, that our player trading model needs to improve to generate some revenue,” Bain explains. “It is a very, very difficult thing to achieve. But with the climate here, the conditions, and the possibility of sustained participation in Europe, there is no reason why we can’t start to develop that model.”

Maccabi took a step in that direction last month when they signed Predrag Rajkovic from Red Star Belgrade. He was the 19-year-old goalkeeper who starred for the Serbia team that won the Under-20 World Cup this summer, and was in high demand across Europe. Only Maccabi, though, could offer him first-team football in the Champions League group stage, and they signed him for €3m.

It was the biggest transfer in the history of Israeli football and it may be the most important. “If he is successful then we will get a return on that investment,” Bain says. “Clubs like ours have to look at life in that way.” Maccabi hope they have signed the new Thibaut Courtois, and if they can sell him at a profit in 2016 or 2017 they hope to attract more talented youngsters who can improve the team and earn them a profit. There is a five-foreigner limit in Israel, and if Maccabi successful lobby the league to relax it, they will sign more players like Rajkovic.

“Maccabi want to build up to be the FC Basel, or the Red Bull Salzburg, of the Israeli Premier League,” Israeli journalist Raphael Geller told The Independent. There is a way for the best teams in small leagues to make their name, but they need to be more intelligent and imaginative than anyone else. Maccabi, back in the big time, are on their way there.

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