Bel Haim a symbol of Pompey's fall
Defender on £36,000 a week among seven players dragging League One club towards liquidation
Footballers have scored own goals that lost cup finals and missed penalties that cost League titles – but seldom has a player put a club out of business. Tal Ben Haim could prove to be an exception.
Ben Haim is the highest earner of seven senior players Portsmouth cannot afford to keep paying. The League One club approach their first season in the third tier since 1983 with a 10-point deduction after entering administration for the second time in three years. But that could be academic if Ben Haim and the others do not agree to leave or tear up their contracts.
Removing their hefty wages from Portsmouth's payroll is a condition of two takeover bids, from previous owner Balram Chainrai and the Pompey Supporters' Trust. If neither proceeds, the 2008 FA Cup winners and 2010 finalists will run out of money within weeks and face liquidation.
Ben Haim, 30, an Israel international defender who has also played for Bolton and Chelsea, joined Portsmouth, then in the Premier League, in September 2009 and still has a year left on a contract reported to be worth £36,000 a week – about 15 times the League One average. Neither he nor Pini Zahavi, his agent, are keen to give up that kind of money and see it as a case of pay up, Pompey.
Ben Haim has become a sort of League One Winston Bogarde – the Chelsea defender who fell out of favour soon after arriving from Barcelona in 2000 but insisted on seeing out his four-year, £10 million contract training with the youth team. The difference is that Chelsea, under Roman Abramovich, could afford to keep paying.
One man who has dealt with both players is Trevor Birch, who inherited Bogarde when he became Chelsea's chief executive in 2002, and is now the administrator in charge at Fratton Park.
"Ben Haim represents everything that has gone wrong at Portsmouth, the excessive wages that were given four or five months before they went into administration the first time," he told The Independent on Sunday. "There were no relegation clauses in his contract, and here we are in League One trying to negotiate a way out of it. The player and his agent haven't caused the problem but they are not helping."
Ben Haim's contract alone could sink the club. "It's not just him, but his contract is by far the largest," Birch said. "The creditors have accepted Chainrai's offer but it is conditional on me reaching an agreement with those players. I'm working night and day to persuade them that we are running out of time."
To make the club's dwindling funds last as long as possible, Birch has imposed a £5,000-a-week salary cap, with the remainder deferred, but the Football Creditors rule means that the players must get their money eventually – unless the club folds, which could happen. "We are two or three weeks away," Birch said. "Then the players will get nothing anyway. It's brinkmanship, but the club is on a knife edge. [The manager] Michael Appleton can't sign any new players because there may not be a club."
Ben Haim recently released a statement in which he presented himself as a victim of Portsmouth's woes. "When the club went into administration the first time, I lost £2m net," he claimed. "I like the club and I like the fans, the best of any club I have ever been to. I am not in conversation with administrator Trevor Birch, but I know he is trying to do his best. Everyone wants to save the club and my interests are the same."
Ah yes, the almost ritual invoking of the Portsmouth fans. What do they think? "Ben Haim is on ridiculous money but I try to be fair," Colin Farmery, a Trust member, said.
"If an employer made you that offer you'd be mad to turn it down. Ben Haim's problem is that he's not a particularly personable player and hasn't played particularly well so has never had the fans' sympathy. He has become a focus, probably a bit unfairly."
Should the worst happen, the Trust have said they would attempt to start again in non-League football. "We're looking for these players to see the bigger picture," Farmery said.
"If they do take this to the limit, there's a danger of liquidation in a fortnight's time and they'll get nothing. The trust's bid includes fair compromise offers to ensure they end up with something and that the club can continue. Otherwise, in League One, the numbers just don't add up."
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