It was while lying in a hospital bed that Israeli soccer star Oshrat Eni made a decision that would change her career forever.
Eni was already an accomplished player, arguably one of the best in the country. She had been an integral part of the Israel national team for over a decade, while also winning eight local championships and State Cups.
However, while bed-stricken by a lung infection she realized that she could achieve more. She knew that she hadn’t fulfilled her full potential. Almost two years later, Eni is finally on her way to doing so.
The 30-year-old signed with Belgian powerhouse RSC Anderlecht on her birthday last week and will be only one of two Israeli women to play in Europe this season, along with goalkeeper Meirav Shamir.
Anderlecht plays in the BeNe League with the top teams from Belgium and the Netherlands and currently sits in fifth place with two wins from three matches.
“It was like a wake-up call,” Eni told The Jerusalem Post. “I told myself that what I had done until now was all very nice, but it wasn’t enough. Playing for the national team and winning championships and cups is nice, but I never had to work really hard to achieve that. I wanted to accomplish something which would require really hard work.”
Eni hired a personal trainer to build up her fitness and contacted an agent last year in the hope of finding a team on the continent. She had some trouble before she managed to put together a DVD of her highlights on the field as almost none of the Israeli league’s matches are televised.
There was some initial interest, but nothing concrete until her agent called the day before the close of the transfer window.
“He asked me how fast I can pack,” Eni said. “I told him two hours, and he said I am flying to Belgium. We were told that it was a done deal only to find out that I would actually have to undergo a trial period. After the second training session the coach already told me that everything is okay and two weeks after I arrived I finally signed the deal.”
Eni insisted that money wasn’t her motivation to move abroad, but it will certainly be refreshing for her to earn a reasonable salary after having to make ends meet with the meager stipend she received in Israel, often several months late.
“During the six months that the league is taking place I did my best not to work anywhere else, and if I did, it was only part-time so that I could focus on soccer,” Eni noted. “I put my all into soccer. As a result, in the six months in which there is no league play I had to work in two jobs. The bank couldn’t care less that I’m a soccer player.
“Top players in the Israeli league can survive on their salary, but they can’t count on it as often it is not paid on time.”
While progress has been made in women’s soccer in Israel since Eni began her career some 15 years ago, there remains plenty of room for improvement.
“The girls put in a lot of hours apart from training with the team and they are desperate that the Israeli league will become more professional,” she said. “There were very big gaps between the teams 10-15 years ago and that has improved. However, when I started playing at Hapoel Tel Aviv we used to train and play at Bloomfield Stadium and they would make sure we had all the equipment we required. It is not like that anymore as the big clubs are no longer involved.”
However, that is about to change, with the Israel Football Association directing all Premier League clubs to open a girls team next season and a women’s youth side the following year.
“It is important that the women’s team has the same management as the men’s team. Once you are part of a club you automatically also benefit from all its facilities. There are pitches, a dressing room and a physiotherapist. You feel that you belong somewhere,” Eni said. “As soon as these clubs will have a women’s youth department I’m certain that they will also open a senior team.”
Eni believes there will be another positive development next summer when Israel hosts the 2015 UEFA Women’s Under-19 Championships.
“The European Under-19 Championships are a very big and important step,” she noted.
“As soon as people will be exposed to top quality women’s soccer and get to know the players, it will benefit the sport.”
The effervescent Eni also works to promote women’s sport in Israel by lecturing in schools as part of the Athena project, the national council for promoting women’s sport in Israel.
“It is a matter of a completely different cultural perception,” explained Eni. “Soccer is considered manly in Israel while in the US it is a massive women’s sport. Israel always tries to copy the US in many aspects and it is a shame that we don’t do so in this case.
“I always say in my lectures that you have one persona on the field and another off it. I’m a tough defender when I play, but I have never had a fight in my life.”
Despite playing for Israel for over a decade and captaining the side for three years, Eni was dropped from the squad by coach Meir Nahmias ahead of the 2015 World Cup qualifying campaign.
She admitted she was stunned by the snub, but continues to back the team and hope for its success.
Israel defeated European Championship semifinalist Denmark 1-0 on the road in its final qualifier last week for what Eni described as the team’s greatest ever win. The blue-and-white ended qualifying Group C in fourth place with 12 points, a significant improvement on previous campaigns.
“I think this campaign symbolizes a change,” Eni said. “As soon as more players go abroad the team will improve and will be able to build on its recent success.”
Eni is hopeful that she will make a return to the national team and help it to even greater accomplishments. In the meantime, she is focused on cementing a starting role at Anderlecht, while always keeping one eye on the next challenge.
“The dream to play in Europe was always there, but I never made that extra effort to realize it,” she said. “Sometimes it is nice that dreams remain dreams as that leaves you with something to aspire for.
“But as soon as I made a decision that I am going to do this I had no doubt that it would happen. Nothing can stop a person from realizing his or her dream.
“The BeNe League is a very good league, but not the best in Europe. I think that an athlete should always aspire for the top. I hope that I’m good enough to play in the best leagues in Germany, Sweden and France. I believe I am and I know I can do it.”firstname.lastname@example.org