Financial scandals rock Israeli sports

Maccabi Tel Aviv’s manager Moni Fanan is embraced by a player after a victory in 2005. Fanan’s suicide has thrown the team into turmoil

Maccabi Tel Aviv’s manager Moni Fanan is embraced by a player after a victory in 2005. Fanan’s suicide has thrown the team into turmoil

A suicide that was seen last Monday simply as a personal and family tragedy has swiftly developed into a storm engulfing not only Israel’s most successful basketball team, but the entire sporting establishment.

Moni Fanan was of one of the most controversial figures in Israeli sports, a general manager for 15 years of Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club, the perennial champions of Israel’s premier league and five-times European Championship winner. His suicide in his north Tel Aviv home was initially explained by his family as his inability to deal with the emptiness in his life after he was forced out of his position with the team last year, amid charges of financial mismanagement.

But within a matter of hours, a different narrative began to emerge.

At first there were rumours, then definite accounts, of how Mr Fanan had served as an unofficial bank for dozens of basketball players who would deposit large sums with him — the minimum investment was $100,000 — in return for an exceedingly handsome interest.

“It was almost like pocket money,” said one former Maccabi player.

The rumours had been swirling for years but now the question mark was unavoidable. At first, some sources claimed that Mr Fanan had invested the money with London financier Nick Levene. But in an interview with an Israeli sports channel, Mr Levene strenuously denied having any business contacts with Mr Fanan.

It now seems that Mr Fanan, who had been asked by many of his depositors to return their original investments, had gone to loan sharks. After defaulting on the repayments and receiving threats, he took his own life.

On Sunday, the Tax Authority began its own investigation. Ostensibly, they are investigating whether Mr Fanan’s investors failed to pay tax on their earnings, but there is a much more serious question to be answered. Did players and officials of rival clubs and basketball referees also receive interest payments from Mr Fanan, and had that had any influence on game results?

The investigators’ first move was to raid the Maccabi offices and question the team’s financial director. A former Maccabi Captain, Nadav Henefeld, and its former coach, Tzvika Sherf, now the national team coach, were next to be questioned. Shimon Mizrahi, Maccabi’s eternal chairman, and David Federman, the millionaire owner of the team, are to be summoned next week.

For years, Maccabi Tel Aviv, despite rival teams’ accusations of underhand dealings, was untouchable. Dubbed “the country’s team”, for supplying a rare dose of international success to a nation starved of sporting achievements, the club is being dragged into a quagmire of allegations and probes.

But it may not stop with Maccabi. A Pandora’s box has been opened and there is a new atmosphere of cleaning the stables.

Next on the agenda are calls by senior figures in the financial authorities to finally investigate the pervasive rumours that some of the country’s senior football teams are controlled by organised crime gangs, resulting in game “selling” and the manipulation of the football pools.

Israeli sports will never be the same.

    Last updated: 5:43pm, October 29 2009