The dilemma that every athlete dreads haunted 40-year-old Israeli handball superstar Idan Maimon throughout this past season.
After announcing at the start of the year that this would be his final campaign as a professional, the country’s greatest ever player realized he may have made a mistake.
Further complicating the situation was the fact that Maimon had the rare opportunity to go out on top. Every athlete dreams of ending his career on a high, especially those who spent most of it at the pinnacle of their sport, and Maimon could have done that after helping Hapoel Rishon Lezion to a league championship and State Cup double last month, the club’s first since 2001.
But while this may have seemed to an outsider like the perfect time to move on, Maimon takes a different perspective.
He had decided to hang up his boots as he was certain that his body was beginning to fail him. However, after an injury-free season in which he played a key role in Rishon’s success, he understood there was no chance he could walk away from the sport he still loves participating in so much.
“At the end of the day, I think that I have been blessed to be able to do something I love, something I am passionate about,” Maimon told The Jerusalem Post.
“As long as I can physically continue I see no reason to stop. The fact we won the double made the decision more difficult as it was tempting to go out on top.
Time will tell if I made the right decision, but I’m completely at peace with it.”
Maimon began his playing career as a 16-year-old at Hapoel Rishon Lezion and has spent his entire career at the club apart from two seasons in the German second division. He has won 13 championships and 11 cups with Rishon and helped the team record its greatest achievement, reaching the quarterfinals of the European Champions League in the 1999/2000 season.
Maimon was also the star of the Israel national team when it qualified for the European Championships for the one and only time in 2002. He holds the national team’s appearance and goal records, scoring 636 goals in 168 appearances.
In October 2013, Maimon became the league’s all-time leading scorer, breaking Akiva Lefler’s record of 2,923 goals. He has since passed 3,000 goals and continues to extend the new record out of reach for any active player.
He is also Israel’s most decorated player when it comes to championship and cup triumphs, which perhaps helps explain why he decided to prolong his career at the risk of not ending it on a sweet note.
“We claimed the double for the first time in 14 years this season so I know it will be difficult to win the double again,” he said. “It was a dream come true, but on the other hand my level of play and the fact I managed to avoid injury during the season showed me I still have what it takes to play on. There is a lot of luck involved and I hope luck remains on my side.”
Maimon said the fact he was able to play such a crucial role in Hapoel’s 3-1 win over Maccabi Rishon Lezion in the best-of-five final series, ultimately convinced him he was capable of playing on for another season.
“My body kept surprising me. I don’t know where I found the strength to play at the age of 40. I played almost 60 minutes in all five games of the finals over a two week period,” he said.
“To call it a day is easy, but while you can always retire, coming back from retirement is almost impossible.”
Despite his decision to play another season, Maimon doesn’t regret his announcement at the start of the campaign.
“I don’t think it was a mistake. I don’t regret anything I did or said during my career. I felt that was the right thing to say at the time but as the season progressed I had more and more doubts,” he explained.
“I felt better than I had done in the previous five years. That gave me the drive to keep playing. Clearly it gets tougher as you get older, but I’m not scared of difficulties.”
Nevertheless, Maimon has learned his lesson about making premature declarations.
“I don’t want to talk about retirement or make any announcement,” he said. “I’ve made my decision for next season and I’ve signed a oneyear deal the way I’ve done throughout my career. I’m at my home club which I love and have played for throughout my life so no matter what I’m with family.”
The prospect of retirement at least allowed Maimon to seriously consider what he plans to do after his playing career comes to a close.
“Had I retired, I would have joined the club’s coaching staff. Whether as an assistant coach or as a coach in the youth department, where I already hold a position. I believe that I’ll remain in handball in some capacity or another,” he noted.
Maimon is particularly interested in helping create a brighter future for local handball. The Israel national team is currently bottom of its Euro 2016 qualifying group with four defeats from four games and the Israel Handball Association’s goal of reaching the 2020 Olympics looks like an impossible dream.
“I think there needs to be a methodical plan from the ground up,” said Maimon. “We don’t have enough talented players. We don’t have enough players playing abroad. We need to recruit players who drop out of basketball.
Tall players who don’t make it in basketball could be very good handball players.
“We need to scour the country and find these players at a young age. This isn’t easy to do as soccer and basketball are the dominant sports in our country. I hope that with my knowledge and experience I can help Israel qualify for Tokyo 2020.”
However, those plans are all on hold for the time being. Maimon has another season as a player to prepare for and everything else will simply have to wait.
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