It is hard to think of a more maligned player in Israeli soccer than Eran Levy.

The 27-year-old’s physique has been the subject of sporting talkshows for years, and not for good reasons.

The fact of the matter is that Levy is overweight.

He’s not what you would consider fat or obese, but you are unlikely to find a stockier player in the Israeli Premier League.

However, despite not being the leanest or fittest player around, Levy is one of the main reasons behind Betar Jerusalem’s resurgence this season.

The Or Akiva native was earmarked as a future star as a teenager at Maccabi Haifa, making his debut for the senior side as a 17- year-old in the 2002/03 season.

There was never any doubt regarding the god-given gift Levy possessed in his left foot, but it also quickly became apparent that he was going to struggle to fulfill his potential if he didn’t start behaving in the manner required by a professional player.

The temperamental midfielder left Haifa in 2005 in his search of more playing time, suiting up for seven different clubs until joining Betar midway through the 2011/12 season.

Levy made little impression at Maccabi Tel Aviv, Ironi Kiryat Shmona, Maccabi Netanya and Hapoel Acre and his playing career looked to be all but over in the summer of 2007 when he joined the beach soccer league looking to make ends meet.

His superb performances on the sand convinced Hapoel Haifa to give him another chance and he found a home at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium, scoring 30 goals in 94 appearances for the club.

Nevertheless, his conduct both on and off the field saw him clash with coach Shlomi Dora time and again, with Levy leaving Haifa for short stints at Hapoel Ashkelon and Hapoel Beersheba before ultimately returning to the one club at which he always seemed welcome.

Levy also began last season as a Haifa red, but he signed for the floundering Betar in the last day of January 2012, surely his final chance to succeed at one of Israel’s big clubs.

Just a couple of weeks later, Betar sacked coach Yuval Naim and replaced him with Eli Cohen, an old-fashioned authoritarian of the likes that generally despise Levy’s type.

The two clashed in Cohen’s very first day at the club, with Levy not showing up for training after calling in sick.

Levy didn’t turn up the following day either, but Cohen had heard that he had been seen out on town and ordered him to arrive immediately or his contract would be terminated.

After his relationship with Cohen got off to the worse possible start, it was of little surprise that Levy only recorded the occasional appearance from the substitutes’ bench.

However, Betar’s dire financial state combined with its lack of attacking options, left Cohen with no real choice but to start with Levy in the closing stages of last season and he played a key role in the team’s eight-match winning streak which secured it another season of top-flight soccer.

Despite their rollercoaster relationship, Cohen asked chairman Itzik Kornfein to extend Levy’s contract for the 2012/13 campaign, hoping that he had finally tamed the beast.

Cohen could not solve Levy’s weight issues, but he believed he discovered how to get the best out of him under the circumstances.

But it wouldn’t be long before the two were at odds once more, with Cohen criticizing the player on TV following the team’s 2-1 defeat at Ashdod SC in its third match of the season.

“Eran Levy was poor,” said an outraged Cohen after introducing the midfielder as a 72nd-minute substitute. “He will play when he does what he’s told.”

Cohen had also humiliated Levy after one of the team’s other matches, pointing out in front of the entire squad that he had only run 5.4 kilometers compared to most of his teammates who completed over 10.

However, Betar also lost its following match 1-0 to Hapoel Acre, picking up just a single point from its first four games of the season.

Both Cohen and Levy realized that it was in their mutual interest to resolve their differences and the midfielder returned to the starting lineup for the match against Hapoel Ramat Gan, scoring in the 2-2 draw.

Levy has since started in 10 of Jerusalem’s 14 league encounters, with Betar losing just once in that stretch.

Jerusalem’s 2-0 victory over Hapoel Tel Aviv at Bloomfield Stadium on Monday lifted it up to fourth place in the standings, just seven points from Maccabi Tel Aviv in first.

A team that seemed destined to fight relegation has all of a sudden become a dark horse to win the championship.

Plenty of that is down to Levy’s play in recent months and his willingness to conform to Cohen’s strict manner.

Levy will likely never realize his full potential, but he is no longer haunted by the past and is determined to make the most of his chance at Betar.

He may not be the model professional, but an in-form Levy remains one of the most exciting players to watch in the league and Betar will only go as far as he takes them.

allon@jpost.com

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