It is a question Yossi Benayoun will surely have to acknowledge one day.
How is it that a player whose career is universally recognized as one of the greatest in Israeli soccer history, is nevertheless so widely unpopular among local fans? The fact he played abroad for most of his career, suiting up for the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea among others during 12 years in Europe, is surely one of the main reasons he isn’t automatically associated with one local club and isn’t unequivocally supported by any set of fans.
But that hardly explains how he reached a situation in which he is so unwelcome at the club for which he played more than any other in Israel, being booed by Maccabi Haifa supporters even while playing for the Israel national team when it recently hosted Albania in a 2018 World Cup qualifier in Haifa.
Benayoun, who was a fan favorite while playing for Haifa between 1998 and 2002, returned to the club in the summer of 2014. He began his European career at Racing Santander in the Spanish league in 2002 before moving on to the English Premier League, playing at West Ham United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, with his last stop being at QPR.
Despite all his magical moments on the field, Benayoun has somehow managed to alienate so many supporters.
He has done it with a measure of dullness, combined with extreme political correctness and self-righteousness.
Benayoun has one final opportunity to change that with one of the biggest fan bases in the country after joining Beitar Jerusalem last week.
At 37 he isn’t going to change much, but perhaps the new scenery and the nature of his new club will make the difference.
So far, however, things are off to a tepid start.
In his first statement as a Beitar player, Benayoun made a mockery of himself.
By claiming that he is “delighted and excited to be joining a team I have been a fan of my entire life,” he turned himself into the punchline of countless jokes.
When he returned to Israel in the summer of 2014 to join Maccabi Haifa, he said he had returned “home.” One could also easily consider Hapoel Beersheba as his true soccer motherland as that is where he made his senior debut as a 16-year-old, 21 years ago.
But other than Benayoun himself, few people knew he had any association with Beitar, and what may have been a genuine statement on his behalf made him look completely phony in the eyes of fans everywhere.
He also added at the time that he intends to end his career with the Greens. That has become a recurring theme with Benayoun. He will be playing for his third different club in three years in 2017/18, and he claimed he planned to end his career with each of them at the time of joining the clubs.
He may have actually meant it each and every time. He will, after all, be one of the oldest players in the Premier League next season and it is only natural that retirement figures into every move he makes.
But more than anything else, it seems Benayoun keeps trying to say what he thinks the fans want to hear rather than what he is actually thinking. That makes him look disingenuous, giving fans the sense that he is no more than another mercenary on the squad.
His moody conduct has also done his reputation little good. Even when he returned to Maccabi Haifa, in what should have been a celebratory occasion for both player and club, he somehow managed to sour it all.
The announcement that he will play for Haifa came less than 24 hours after both he and the club declared he wouldn’t be returning to the Greens.
Benayoun and Haifa released separate statements explaining that negotiations had broken down. Benayoun wished the team luck and wrote that he considers himself free to join another Israeli club after first giving Haifa the right of refusal the way he had always promised. The club released a one-sentence statement announcing that it has decided to pass on the option of signing the midfielder.
However, a phone conversation between Haifa owner Jacob Shachar and Benayoun changed everything.
Shachar told Benayoun that there was no intention of offending him in the first place and the deal was soon completed.
Considering all that unfolded until he finally signed, it should hardly be surprising that the marriage ended in an ugly divorce.
He helped the Greens to their first title in five years and first State Cup in 18 years in his final match for the team two years ago.
But he revealed after the cup final that Haifa had asked him to leave the previous September following the side’s poor start to the season and the subsequent unrest in the dressing room.
According to Benayoun, it was owner Shachar who asked him to go, but after speaking with coach Roni Levy the two came to an agreement that if either one were forced to leave the club the other would follow suit. Unhappy with the way he was treated by the Greens, Benayoun already told the club in February that he would be leaving at the end of the campaign.
“I came to Haifa with the intention of ending my career here, but things change in soccer,” said Benayoun after the cup final. “There is no other player in Israel who would have coped with what I coped with this season.”
Benayoun said earlier this week that he could have continued at Maccabi Tel Aviv had he wanted to. But the fact of the matter is that new coach Jordi Cruyff essentially told him he would be better off elsewhere as he isn’t set to receive a prominent role with the yellow- and-blue in the coming season.
With two-time defending champion Hapoel Beersheba not interested in his services, and with Benayoun quickly outstaying his welcome at Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Tel Aviv, he was left with very few options.
Retirement was out of the question for Benayoun, who wants to continue playing for as long as possible, and accepting Maccabi Petah Tikva’s offer would have truly brought his career to an end with a whimper.
Beitar came to his rescue, providing him with an opportunity to go out with a bang.
“I followed my heart. My heart told me that I shouldn’t miss what is probably my last opportunity to play for Beitar. My intention is to retire here. Whether at the end of this season, or if I prove that I can still help the team, maybe in a few more years,” said Benayoun, who will perhaps finally find a home at Beitar, giving his career the ending it truly firstname.lastname@example.org