Sinai Says: Zahavi making few friends in quest for Israeli soccer greatness

You either love him or hate him. But however you might feel towards him, you simply cannot ignore Eran Zahavi.

By
December 18, 2013 05:25
Maccabi Tel Aviv's Eran Zahavi

Maccabi Tel Aviv's Eran Zahavi 370. (photo credit: Adi Avishai)

 
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You either love him or hate him. But however you might feel towards him, you simply cannot ignore Eran Zahavi.

No one in Israeli sports plays the roles of hero and villain better than the Maccabi Tel Aviv midfielder.

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Take Monday night for example.

Zahavi’s composed penalty in the 29th minute secured Maccabi a 1-0 victory over Hapoel in the first Tel Aviv derby of the season, increasing the defending-champion’s lead at the top of the Premier League standings to four points.

Zahavi took his tally in 12 league matches this season to seven goals and further cemented his reputation as a player who never fails to show up on the big occasion.

On the other hand, there was Zahavi’s goal celebration.

The 26-year-old has a long history with Hapoel fans, having left the club in the summer of 2011 for Italian side Palermo before returning to Israel to play for archrival Maccabi in January.



There is no reason to envy Zahavi for the never-ending abuse directed at him from Hapoel fans since his move to the yellowand- blue, especially when he comes up against his former team.

However, that can be no excuse for Zahavi’s premeditated decision to celebrate his goal from the penalty spot by firing imaginary shots, with his fingers acting as the guns, towards the Hapoel stand.

With guns unfortunately being prevalent in Israeli society, mainly due to the security situation in the country, the last thing a sporting role model like Zahavi should do is incite rival fans by pretending to shoot at them.

But for better or for worse, that is Zahavi.

While many players make an effort not to celebrate a goal against their former teams, whether they truly mean it or not, Zahavi couldn’t care less of what anyone else might think of him.

“I wasn’t celebrating anything special,” said Zahavi in a somewhat misleading manner on Monday. “Every time I score a goal against Hapoel the media makes a huge story out of it. I scored the goal in front of their stand so I celebrated there. It is their right to do what they want to do and it is my right to celebrate the way I want to. It’s my obligation to celebrate after scoring a goal.”

After scoring his first goal for Maccabi against Hapoel in April’s 2-0 victory at Bloomfield, Zahavi enthusiastically climbed on the advertising boards and frantically waved his yellow shirt over his head in front of the Maccabi fans in an unforgettable and arguably over-the-top celebration.

It was remarkably reminiscent of his celebration on May 15, 2010, a day Hapoel supporters will never forget.

After clinching the championship for his team in the most dramatic of fashions with a goal against Beitar Jerusalem two minutes into stoppage time, Zahavi jumped up into the Hapoel stand at Teddy Stadium and celebrated like a man possessed.

It is this unrelenting passion for the game which makes Zahavi such a divisive figure.

“He is a player who lives the game perhaps more than anybody else,” Maccabi coach Paulo Sousa said on Monday. “He loves soccer and everything he does in training and in matches comes from his love of the game. He is also a very emotional person besides that, and that is something which I love as a coach. I always say that it isn’t just important to win, but to also feel the desire and passion to win and Eran has that.”

After playing a key role in Hapoel’s run to the championship in 2009/10, and in the club’s progress to the Champions League group stage the following season, Zahavi became the second Israeli to play in Italy’s Serie A after signing a five-year deal with Palermo.

He scored a goal 15 seconds into his first start for the team, but never really settled at the club and came back home to help the yellow-and-blue in its push for a first league title in 10 years.

Zahavi ended up proving crucial to Maccabi’s league triumph, finishing the season with seven goals in 16 appearances.

At the start of the 2013/14 campaign, he picked up where he left off, and despite playing as a midfielder, he is currently second only to Omer Damari with seven league goals.

Zahavi also contributed three goals in five appearances in the Europa League group stage, helping Maccabi advance to the knockout rounds in continental competition for the first time in club history.

But it’s not just that Zahavi scores so many goals for a midfielder, as well as making the players around him better.

A closer look at Zahavi’s statistics at Maccabi reveals that the team has never lost when he has scored.

Zahavi has found the back of the net 18 times in 15 different matches in all competitions since January, with the team winning 12 of those encounters and drawing the remaining three games.

There seemed to be little doubt Zahavi would score when he stepped up to take the penalty on Monday, and like the reliable hero, or perhaps villain, he is, he duly completed the job when so many others would have quivered under the pressure.

“Sometimes I hear fans say that ‘you should play for the emblem on the shirt’. I play for myself because after two inaccurate passes the fans are already cursing you,” said Zahavi after leaving Hapoel for Palermo.

Zahavi is possibly the most antagonizing player in the league, but that is only because he is so good.

Even his detractors are quick to admit to his excellence on the field. It simply cannot be denied.

With a relatively low buy-out clause of a million Euros, Zahavi did his best to remain diplomatic when asked on Monday if he will be leaving Maccabi in the summer, saying that “anything is possible in life.” One fan’s hero is always another’s villain, but Zahavi seems indifferent to what anyone might think of him. He is determined to make it to the top and he will step on whoever he needs to on his way there.

allon@jpost.com

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