Maccabi Haifa seal third consecutive Israeli title

May 15, 2006

JERUSALEM, May 15 (Reuters) - The Israeli soccer season which ended on Sunday was marked by little fanfare but lots of money talk after Maccabi Haifa became the first club in over 40 years to win three consecutive championships.

Haifa's dominance was so complete they were effectively crowned champions well before the season's halfway stage at the start of the year.

In winning a 10th title since their inaugural crown in 1984, Haifa were more solid and workmanlike than in previous seasons but were too good for their opponents.

Local media named at least five Haifa players in their team of the season, while Brazilian striker Gustavo Bocoli and coach Ronnie Levy were the top picks for player and coach of the season.

Haifa secured Israel's only spot for the qualifying stage of next season's Champions League, while runners-up and State Cup winners Hapoel Tel Aviv, third placed Betar Jerusalem and fourth placed Bnei Yehuda got UEFA Cup berths.

Betar Jerusalem became the first big-money acquisition in Israeli soccer when Russian-born tycoon Arkady Gaydamak, who bought the club last year, began spending unprecedented sums on coaches and players.

Gaydamak's appearance prompted other big spenders to pledge major investment in clubs, but diamond magnate Lev Leviev, who committed to buying Hapoel Tel Aviv in the other expected major acquisition, pulled out of the deal at the last moment.

Reports said Leviev, a close friend of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, was scared off by the prying eyes of the media.

Haifa's dominance and the general good behaviour of their fans appeared to have a positive effect on the rest of the league, leading to a reduction in violent incidents compared to the previous season.

The most notable negative moment was the brawl between the supporters of Betar and Arab club Bnei Sakhnin who were relegated after three seasons in the top flight.

Sakhnin, the league's poorest club, were relegated after three seasons in the top flight. They did not build a sufficiently competitive side and lost ground from the start, spending only a brief period above the relegation zone.

The second relegation spot went to Upper Nazareth who had a good start but faded badly towards the end.

Hapoel Kfar Sava's fortunes were quite the reverse and their late turnaround under coach Eli Ohana saved them on goal difference on the last day of the season.