Until he won televised competition Aluf Hakaduregel (Soccer Champion) two years ago, religious teenager Uri Warner never considered a career in soccer. Today, in the wake of the competition prize, two weeks' training in the company of British soccer giants Chelsea and a stint with the Petah Tikva youth team last year, the dream appears feasible. This week, the 18-year-old is still euphoric after scoring the goals that secured his fourth-tier Liga Aleph team, the newly-formed Hapoel Katamon, a 2-1 victory over Nahalat Yehuda at Givat Ram last Friday. In so doing, the British native, who immigrated here at age 11, earned himself the distinction of Hapoel Katamon's first goal-scorer and, unsurprisingly, in view of his club's high profile establishment this summer, considerable media attention. After one-time premier league leader Hapoel Jerusalem was relegated to third-tier Liga Artzit at the close of last season, a cluster of zealous fans headed by Uri Sheradsky, editor of sports magazine Shem Hamis'hak, bought Liga Aleph team Hapoel Mevaseret and converted it to Hapoel Katamon. The founders, who claim to have restored the "real Hapoel Jerusalem," hope to eventually acquire their declining former team and merge it with their new one. Warner isn't fazed by the controversy surrounding his club nor by the current press interest in him. It's not the first time that he's been in the spotlight. The religious teen's triumph over thousands of hopeful young soccer-star wannabes in Aluf Hakaduregel two years ago, saw him featured on the back of cereal boxes and the subject of many a young soccer fan's attentions. With victory under his belt, Warner began, for the first time, to entertain the possibility of a career in professional soccer "beyond the realm of fantasy." "It's funny," Warner muses. "While many of my friends played for professional youth teams, my soccer training amounted to after-school practice in my hometown of Hashmonaim. At the moment, Warner is biding his time with Hapoel Katamon, eager to see the team's fortunes rise along with his own. The possibility of an athlete position in the army looms and with it the opportunity to continue playing during his service. If he succeeds in his chosen path, Warner hopes to pave the way for other would-be religious professional soccer players, as he doesn't consider religious observance incompatible with a career on the pitch. "Being a religious soccer player isn't easy but it can be done," he says. "When I played for Petah Tikva, for example, I'd walk to games on Shabbat, which is something I intend to continue doing if need be. He adds: "I know young religious players who would be an asset to Israeli football but don't have the opportunity to play as a result of something as inconsequential as a kick-off hour. I'd like to change this if I get to the stage where I am able to wield that kind of influence." In the meantime, Warner negotiates the synthesis of religion and sport on a daily basis. While his afternoons are taken up by training, Warner boards and spends his mornings learning at the Old City-based Yeshivat Ateret Kohanim. His rabbis, he confesses, are unaware of his afternoon pursuits. "I'm not sure what they'd think if they knew," he laughs, "but they live in a different world, they don't read sports news so they have no knowledge of what I do." Still, he admits to sometimes being fazed by the dichotomy between the two worlds he inhabits. "The differences between the discussions in yeshiva and the locker room banter of a group of boisterous sports players does sometimes strike me as bizarre." His teammates, he's quick to point out, are respectful of his religion, sometimes even inquisitive. At a recent training weekend in the North, he recalls, sauna-room conversation reached a lull and he found himself called upon to provide his teammates with insights from the weekly Torah portion. On another occasion he took a call from his coach expecting reproof but instead received a question about prayer. At the moment, Warner says, he's content reaping the benefits of his achievements thus far. "I consider being paid to play soccer a privilege and one I didn't imagine I'd be experiencing at 18." He's in the process of negotiating the possibility of athlete status with the army, and if successful, he'll continue playing for Hapoel Katamon during his army service next year. He hasn't thought too far beyond that, he says, although when pushed he ventures he's eager at the prospect of his team's anticipated rise through the ranks of Israeli football. The opportunities this may afford him to draw closer to his dream of a stable career in professional soccer, he acknowledges, is an exciting prospect.

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