Rafaelov leaving Haifa for Belgium; Benado calls it quits

By
June 22, 2011 08:32

Long touted as the future star of the Greens, the 25-year-old midfielder finally realized his potential this past campaign, scoring 11 goals and leading the team to the Premier League title.

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Lior Rafaelov to leave Haifa for Belgium

Rafaelov 311. (photo credit: adi avishai)

For a second straight season, Maccabi Haifa is going to have to rebuild the backbone of its team after it was confirmed on Tuesday that Premier League player of the season Lior Rafaelov will be leaving for Club Brugge of Belgium.

Long touted as the future star of the Greens, the 25-year-old midfielder finally realized his potential this past campaign, scoring 11 goals and leading the team to the Premier League title.

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Haifa owner Jacob Shahar was initially reluctant to release his creative midfielder, especially with striker Tomer Hemed set to leave the club for Spain’s RCD Mallorca on a free-transfer and defender Arik Benado retiring.

However, a 2.5 million-euro offer from the Belgians and pleas from Rafaelov to be allowed to move on eventually convinced Shahar to accept Brugge’s offer, meaning Haifa now needs to replace three of its anchors from last season, just as it did last summer when Dekel Keinan, Biram Kiyal and Shlomi Arbeitman all left for Europe.

“We don’t stand in the way of our talented players,” Shahar said on Tuesday. “Lior’s game has matured and it should be no surprise that I wanted to enjoy his services for another season. But we are proud that our players are wanted in Europe.

That is part of this club’s tradition.”

Besides becoming Haifa’s most influential player, Rafaelov has developed into one of the stars of the Israel national team under Luis Fernandez’s guidance, playing in all of its Euro 2012 qualifiers to date.

The Or Akiva native was desperate to move to the continent as soon as the chance arose, but has also already got his sights set on eventually playing on an even bigger stage than Brugge.

“I’m very excited,” Rafaelov said. “I have dreamed of this day and I would like to thank Maccabi Haifa for everything.

Brugge are paying quite a bit for my services and I’m happy both sides eventually came to an agreement.

Brugge is a big club in Belgium which is aiming to take the championship.

I hope to play well for them and continue to advance my career.”

The surprise news of Rafaelov’s departure arrived during the official press conference announcing Benado’s retirement.

The 37-year-old returned to Haifa last summer after four seasons at Betar Jerusalem for what was supposed to be his final year as a player. Despite not featuring at all until mid-November, the veteran went on to become a valuable starter for the Greens and ended his career by claiming his ninth championship overall.

Benado had hoped to help Haifa reach the Champions League group stage this season, but worrying results in recent heart tests led him to hang up his boots sooner than he had hoped.

“This is a very sad and difficult day for me,” said Benado, who ends his career with the record for most appearances made in the Premier League (565) and the Israel national team (94). “I was looking forward to this season, but my heart told me otherwise.”

Haifa has wasted little time in bringing in local replacements for Israelis Rafaelov, Benado and Hemed, with the first two being Wiyam Amashe and Dele Yampolsky.

The 25-year-old Amashe impressed with 16 goals in 24 matches in an injury interrupted campaign at Ironi Kiryat Shmona, while the 22-year-old Dele Yampolsky finally fulfilled his promise in Maccabi Netanya’s midfield last season.

Haifa has also added to its squad Serbian goalkeeper Bojan Saranov and Croatian defender Jurica Buljat to its squad.


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