Sam Wallace: Who is Avram Grant? From the Special One to an Unknown One
Friday 21 September 2007
Short, barrel-chested and poker-faced, Avram Grant was virtually unknown to English football until yesterday morning, content to bide his time in the shadow of Jose Mourinho while staying at the heart of Roman Abramovich's private court. Today he will be presented as the manager of one of the most powerful teams in the world. It came as no surprise to those who have followed his career in his native Israel.
At 52, the new Chelsea manager is already a phenomenon in Israeli football for his cultivation of influence as much as his coaching track record. He has won four Israeli league titles with two different clubs, and his wife, Tzofit, is a major television celebrity who once drank her own urine live on air. Grant has never quite gone to those extremes but he has a reputation for being one of the most controversial figures in Israeli football as well as one of its most enigmatic coaches. After 34 years as a coach, Grant finally has the kind of job he has spent his life building towards.
In a study of Grant's career, however, one theme recurs: he has always courted influential, wealthy men and placed himself inside the circle of power. His networking skills are legendary and Abramovich is the latest in a series of wealthy businessmen who have been impressed by Grant's powers of persuasion.
There is no doubting the success of Grant within Israeli football – he is credited with being the country's first coach to adopt modern technology. As the manager of the Israel national team, his side were undefeated in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers, including two draws with France, although they did not make the tournament. However, Grant has always divided opinion, to the extent that one of his most public detractors – the former West Ham midfielder Eyal Berkovic – once risked national scorn by saying that he wanted the Israel team to lose when Grant was in charge.
Grant's most famous falling out was with the current Israel coach Dror Kashtan, a gruff character who enjoys few of his rival's more sophisticated diplomatic skills. In 1996, Grant persuaded Maccabi Tel Aviv and their wealthy owner, Loni Herzikowitz, to reappoint him manager of the club despite the fact that Kashtan had just won a league and cup double there. Unsurprisingly the pair are no longer on speaking terms.
But Kashtan is one of the few names in world football whose number is not in Grant's mobile phone. He claims to be friends with Sven Goran Eriksson, Arsène Wenger and Luiz Felipe Scolari. Ironically, he was even among the select group of dignitaries who met Mourinho when the then Chelsea manager made a brief public relations trip to Israel in 2005. Grant is known to stay up into the early hours speaking to contacts and cultivating a network of football's most powerful names.
He has two sons, Daniel and Romi, with his wife Tzofit, an actress who hosts the popular Israeli television show Milkshake. She may well prove a lively addition to English football's WAG culture having – on the advice of a health guru – drank her own urine on the show as well as bathing in melted chocolate.
Her husband's coaching techniques have also proved fairly radical in the past. As the manager of the Israel national team Grant once showed his players a clip from the Mel Gibson film Braveheart in order to motivate them before a game. He also commissioned a film director to interview members of the Israeli public on what the national team meant to them and then had those clips edited into a video to inspire his players.
Nevertheless, Grant has had to wait a long time for his chance at a major European club. Before he was in charge of Israel, who he managed between 2002 and 2005, he managed his hometown team Hapoel Petrach Tikva, had two spells at Maccabi Tel Aviv, was briefly in charge of Hapoel Haifa and won two titles at Maccabi Haifa. Last season was spent at Portsmouth as Harry Redknapp's nominal director of football while Abramovich prepared the ground for his move to Chelsea.
Having resisted Grant's appointment in the summer of 2006, Mourinho was powerless to stop him when Abramovich appointed the Israeli as the club's director of football in the summer. During the tour of California he was a peripheral figure, relegated to the margins by Mourinho's close-knit band of Portuguese staff. But Grant had not waited his whole career to lose his nerve when so close to such a big job and, despite the cold-shoulder treatment, he continued to take his place on the bench behind Mourinho.
Around the media at the team's Beverly Hills hotel Grant was cautious but friendly. Most of the time he just seemed glad of someone with whom he could talk although he did not distinguish himself in the friendly football match between the Chelsea staff and the press. After a brief cameo alongside Steve Clarke in the centre of midfield, he returned to the touchlines where he has spent his time in football since the age of 18.
Grant's story begins in Petrach Tikva, a grimy Tel Aviv suburb. He never played at any level of note and was already a coach at the age of 18. He landed himself a role with the youth team of the local professional side Hapoel Petrach Tikva where he stayed for 18 years. There Grant built a successful youth team who almost all went on to professional careers and raised his profile at the club to the extent that, at the age of 32, he was appointed manager of the senior team.
With the famous former Israeli striker Nahum Stelmach as his assistant, Grant enjoyed relative success with his side, finishing second three times in four seasons and winning the league cup twice. He got his big break in 1991 when he was appointed manager of Maccabi Tel Aviv where he won two league titles, one cup and one league cup. His team were known for being pragmatic and brutal at times. A tackle by the Tel Aviv player Meir Melika on the Maccabi Haifa player Roman Pets ended the Ukrainian's career and is a famous moment in the history of Israeli football.
In 1995, Grant was lured away for an unsuccessful season at Hapoel Haifa and then persuaded Herzikowitz to take him back over Kashtan. He left after four relatively unsuccessful years but in 2000 landed the Maccabi Haifa job after developing a close working relationship with another powerful Israeli football man, Ya'akov Shahar. There, Grant re-established himself with two more Israeli championships before taking charge of the national team in 2002.
He came to know Abramovich in 2006 when Uzbekistan billionaire Lev Leviev was planning to take over Hapoel Tel Aviv. The club were to be a nursery side for Chelsea and Grant was to be installed by Leviev, another powerful contact, as manager. When the takeover fell through, Abramovich promised his new friend he would find him a job in England.
With so many Mourinho loyalists in the stands – not to mention the dressing room – Grant will be well aware that he is not likely to be a popular man when he sits in the dugout for his first home game against Fulham on 29 September. But crucially he has the backing of Abramovich and that, as he learned over the years, is more important than anything else.
The Grant file: 'He's an illusionist, relying on luck'
1986-1991 Hapoel Petah Tikva
1991-1995 Maccabi Tel Aviv
1995-1996 Hapoel Haifa
1996-2000 Maccabi Tel Aviv
2000-2002 Maccabi Haifa
Life and times
A Russian-speaking coach, Grant never played the game professionally. Began as a youth coach with Hapoel Petach Tikva. Later moved to Maccabi Tel Aviv, guiding them to a first league title in 13 years. Won two further championships with Maccabi Haifa (a team including Yakubu and Yossi Benayoun) and managed the Israel national team through the 2006 World Cup qualifiers. They remained unbeaten in a group that included France, Switzerland and the Republic of Ireland, with four victories and six draws. Quit in October 2005 after failing to get to World Cup. Critics in Israel derided his play as "too negative", just as Mourinho was chastised in England in his last 18 months at Stamford Bridge.
Married to Israeli TV presenter Tzofit Grant. Appointed director of football at Portsmouth in 2006 by owner Alexandre Gaydamak.
What they say
[He is] "an illusionist", incapable of using a proper game plan and relying on luck rather than skill."
Former Israel coach Shlomo Scharf
"Avram Grant becoming Chelsea coach is the same as Neil Armstrong's historic landing on the moon."
Ran Ben-Shimon, coach of Hapoel Kiryat Shmona
"I wasn't pleased when he was brought in at Portsmouth without my knowledge, but I soon realised he isn't the kind of man to spy on you for the owner."
Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp
"He observes a lot, he chats to the players and gives a small input. He is quite philosophical. He is like Socrates [the Greek philosopher, not the footballer]."
Midfielder David Thompson (who was with Grant at Portsmouth)
Simon Calder looks at communities fighting back against the poachers
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