The Last Word: Give Gai time, and he could be the one

'All around the ground people were craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the boy wonder.'

March 28, 2008 10:43
2 minute read.

The pressure on teenage star-to-be Gai Assulin on Wednesday night was immense. The IFA had attracted more than 24,000 soccer supporters to National Stadium in Ramat Gan to watch a near-meaningless friendly against Chile. They did this through a combination of the infeasibly low ticket price of NIS 10 and the prospect of seeing the next big thing make his debut for the Israel national team before he has played a significant game for his club first team (even though that club is the mighty Spaniards Barcelona FC). So the pressure was on, both on coach Dror Kashtan to resist the crowd's increasingly loud calls for Assulin to be introduced as the second half wore on, and on the young striker himself, who was warming up with the other substitutes on the patch of grass behind the goal. All around the ground people were craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the boy wonder, the latest whiz kid to receive the burden of the nation's hopes on his shoulders. It wasn't until the 79th minute of the match, ten minutes before the end, that Assulin finally made his debut, a full two weeks before his 17th birthday. So, how did he do? All in all, it clearly wasn't enough time for a full assessment. He started slowly, not appearing to touch the ball at all for the first four minutes. But when he did receive it the boy seemed to have a glint in his eye, knowing that this was his time to show off. With his first touch he began one of three or four near-dazzling dribbles, each of which ended in him being tackled, but all of which showed glimpses of what the future could hold if Assulin develops in the manner we all hope he will. But that is the important point to note. We have seen this all before, both in Israel and all round the world. It was only a year ago that a 17-year-old Ben Sahar turned on the style and scored two goals for Israel in a European Championship qualifier against Estonia after coming on as a sub 20 minutes before the end. Sahar was playing for Chelsea at the time and had made three appearances in Jose Mourinho's first team. Now he is on loan at Sheffield Wednesday and hardly had a journalist look at him on Wednesday, even though he scored for the Under-21s against Moldova. The soccer community must be careful with young Gai, give him time and space to develop or his talent may fizzle away. There's no doubt he has the temperament. Having been thrust into the limelight at such a young age, he had to face the quote-hungry Israeli media after the game, but showed little sign of nerves, answering each question in a professional manner that belied his years. A telling moment came as he tried to leave the stadium car park, only to be faced with a group of crazed young fans chanting his name and shaking the perimeter fence. Assulin looked a little scared before his Dad came and picked him up in a hired car, and he escaped unscathed. Let's hope he manages to continue his career in the same manner, and provides Israel's soccer fans with the skills and performances we know he is capable of.

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