Beitar’s rollercoaster ride

The biggest game of the weekend in the Ligat Ha'Al, the Israeli top flight, merely served to confirm the dominant position currently held by leaders Beitar Jerusalem. The reigning Israeli champions comfortably defeated closest pursuers Maccabi Netanya 2-0 on Sunday evening, stretching their margin at the top of the standings to 11 points.

Twenty-one matches into the season, the Jerusalem big guns have won 15 and drawn five, with just a solitary defeat in mid-January at home to Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin, currently in third. Away from home, Beitar are undefeated since 20 January 2007 in a blistering sequence that underlines their status as the top dogs of Israeli domestic football. Their lead in the standings is complemented by far and away the best goal difference, with 40 goals scored to just ten conceded.

The potent Beitar forward line is led by Brazilian-born Romulo, on ten goals for the campaign so far. The striker, holder of an Italian passport, is aided and abetted by free-scoring midfielders Gal Albermann, Aviram Baruchian and ex-Everton midfielder Idan Tal, each with five goals to his name this term. At the back, experienced Croatian keeper Tvrtko Kale marshals a solid defence which has kept an impressive 13 clean sheets thus far.

Coach Shum, a former Israel international who appeared at the 1970 FIFA World Cup™, has clearly schooled his men in the art of turning round seemingly lost causes. Beitar have twice salvaged draws after going a goal down. Even more impressively, Shum's team have come from a goal down to win and secure maximum points on three separate occasions.

Rollercoaster history
The club was founded in 1936 but has not always enjoyed the success of recent years. In the early 1950s, the men from Jerusalem plied their trade in the Bet League, Israel's second division at the time, before winning promotion to the Aleph League for the first time in 1953. Relegation back to the second tier followed after just a single season, and 14 years were to pass before Beitar rejoined the top flight in 1968.

The club hit the headlines for the wrong reasons in the early 70s for the unruly behaviour of its fans, before attracting more positive press in 1976. Coach Nissim Bechar and a team built around star names Uri Malmilian, Danni Noiman and Victor Levi claimed the club's first national crown by winning the domestic Cup competition, defeating runaway favourites Maccabi Tel Aviv 2-1 in the final. Beitar repeated the feat three years later, overcoming the same opponents by the same scoreline.

The club from the metropolis of 700,000 suffered another dramatic decline just a season later with relegation back to the second division at the end of the 1979-80 campaign. More extremes of fortune were to follow. In 1983/84, poised to claim the first Israeli championship in their history, Beitar contrived to throw away the title to Maccabi Haifa on the last day of the season. Partial consolation came in 1985 with a third Cup triumph courtesy of a 1-0 revenge win against the Haifa outfit.

First league triumph in 1987
Finally, 51 years after coming into existence, Beitar Jerusalem claimed the national championship for the first time in 1987. The Cup returned to the trophy cabinet two years later with another win against Maccabi Haifa, this time on penalties.

Coach Dror Kashtan led Beitar to their second league triumph in 1993, with titles three and four to follow in 1996/97 and 1997/98. However, the flow of success in the 80s and 90s subsequently dried up, with two Cup final defeats on penalties to Hapoel Tel Aviv merely increasing the heartache.

New era under Arkadi Gaydamak
Russian-Israeli billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak acquired the club in August 2005. The development was harshly criticised by diehard supporters, but it ushered in a return to winning ways on the field of play.

After finishing third in 2005-6, Beitar sealed a fifth domestic title in 2006/07 by a full ten points from runners-up Maccabi Netanya, again their closest rivals for the Israeli crown this term.

Beitar appear well on course to defend the championship trophy and claim the title for the sixth time this season. Reassured by their daunting lead in the table, and provided Itzhak Shum's men avoid a catastrophic loss of form in the run-in, the fans can safely begin preparations for the latest championship party to be held at the Teddy Kollek stadium.