Analysis: The return of the legionnaires and the impact on Israeli soccer landscape

The surge in the numbers of returning legionnaires is a direct result of the huge infusion of money which accompanied the arrival of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s owner, Mitch Goldhar.

Maccabi Tel Aviv owner Mitch Goldhar. (photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
Maccabi Tel Aviv owner Mitch Goldhar.
(photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
Lost in the aftermath on Eran Zahavi’s heroics in recent games of the Champions League’s qualification rounds is the fact that Zahavi spent a brief and disappointing sojourn in Palermo as a legionnaire several years ago.
Still, the rigors and adversity of his 18-month Sicilian experience elevated his game to a much higher level, to the point that he has now earned his place alongside Israeli soccer’s all-time greats.
There is an old biblical axiom – “ Veshavu Banim Ligvulam ,” translated as “And your children shall return to their borders,” referring to the joy which accompanies the return of Israeli warriors and other migrants to their homeland. Such a sentiment could readily apply to the recent wave of Israeli soccer legionnaires who have made their way home.
While home cooking and family reunions have contributed to this flow, the most compelling enticement is the lure of mega dollars doled out to them by the affluent owners of some of the major Israeli clubs, which have become on par with the monies they earned abroad.
A variant to the formula of familiar surroundings and monetary inducement lies in the case of the returning legionnaires from France.
With regard to Eden Ben-Basat, Eliran Atar, Itay Shechter and Ben Sahar, the issue of security seemed to be the major reason which resulted in their decision to come home, having been spurred by rising anti-Semitism in France and recurring acts of terrorism unleashed by its growing number of radical Islamists. Lastly, in several cases, under-performance in the foreign venue and the approach of their twilight years prompted the departure of certain players from their European domain and the ensuing homeward journey. The most noted recent examples of players who achieved stardom in Europe, but saw their play decline as part of the aging process and thus traveled home in order to complete their career cycle with their parent clubs are Yossi Benayoun and Tal Ben-Haim.
The surge in the numbers of returning legionnaires is a direct result of the huge infusion of money which accompanied the arrival of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s owner, Jewish-Canadian billionaire Mitch Goldhar, on the Israeli soccer scene. In an effort to maintain some measure of competitive balance, Hapoel Beersheba owner Alona Barkat has meted out large financial packages to lure some of Israeli’s finest players who had become fixtures abroad, like Elyaniv Barda, Maor Buzaglo, Maor Melikson and this season, Ben Sahar, still a young player who has shown great promise but has underachieved. In a number of cases, large transfer fees were involved as well as hefty players’ salaries which have now become standard fare for returning legionnaires.
Goldhar seized the vacuum left in Israeli soccer with the changed fiscal policy of Jacob Shachar, who was for decades considered the patriarch of modern Israeli soccer by building a European style infrastructure and training facilities for his Maccabi Haifa club and for his largess in the matter of players’ compensation before pursuing a more frugal fiscal plan when it came to players’ compensation in recent years. While Goldhar’s most significant acquisition has been Eran Zahavi, he had already formed the nucleus for his team by securing the services of versatile wingback Yoav Ziv and Gal Alberman, a stellar defensive midfielder whose brief career in the Bundesliga was marred by injuries. Since his return to Israel, Alberman has been one of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s main pillars in the building of a team which has now garnered three successive league titles and climbed to the group stage of the Champions league. Moreover, and although already possessing two of the finest defenders in the league in Eitan Tibi and Carlos Garcia, he has this season recruited legendary defender Ben- Haim to further fortify his defense in anticipation of a Champions League campaign.
There have been other challengers to Jacob Shachar’s preeminence in the league in recent years, most notably Arkadi Gaydamak, whose lavish spending targeted domestic standouts like Michael Zandberg, Arik Benado, Shimon Gershon, Ziv, Idan Tal, Alberman and others and produced two league titles at Beitar Jerusalem. However, whereas Gaydamak relished raiding other clubs in the league for their top stars and in the process weakening his opponents, the focus of Goldhar, Barkat and the newly empowered ownership group at Hapoel Tel Aviv has been to focus on earmarking the cream of the crop of the legionnaires. Even Shachar has now rejoined the parade, signing Benayoun, Atar and Shechter in the process. Goldhar kept pace by plucking Avi Rikan from FC Zurich, although his efforts to reacquire Munas Dabbur from Grasshoppers have come up short because of the exorbitant demand the Swiss club made to transfer the player back to his original team. Other Israeli legionnaires who appear destined to persevere in their European habitat despite frequent bids by Israeli clubs to acquire their services are Bibras Natcho in Russia, Lior Refaelov in Belgium, Nir Biton in Scotland and Toto Tamuz in Romania.
A brief analysis of the manner in which Israeli legionnaires have performed in Europe and how the experience has impacted their play after their return to Israel is noteworthy. Given the number of players who found their way abroad and returned home, it is an onerous task to draw any conclusions. However, the following conclusions appear to be supported; first, the potential for Israeli players to reach super-stardom in Europe’s big five leagues – England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France – appears virtually nil. Eyal Berkovic and Yossi Benayoun were doubtless impact players in England, but judging by the fact that they moved around between several clubs, did not attain an elite status accorded to the very best players. However, in leagues which are normally placed in the second tier, several legionnaires achieved recognition as genuine game changers. This would apply to Barda, Buzaglo and Refaelov in Belgium, Natcho in Russia, Biton in Scotland, and Melikson in Poland. Of those who have returned to Israel, they have continued to perform at a high level. Barda and Buzaglo played brilliantly at Beersheba last season while Melikson appears primed for a big year after being hampered by injuries last season. Conversely, players whose Europe - an stay was marred by injuries and uneven play are experiencing similar problems in finding their groove in Israel. As an example, one can cite the likes of Shechter, Gili v ermouth and Shlomi Arbeitman (Hapoel Beer - sheba), all of whom can’t seem to get the monkey off their backs, perhaps because their confidence was severely shaken by their mediocre play abroad.
Arbeitman, in particular, appears to support this theory since he was the league’s leading goal scorer at Maccabi Haifa just prior to his departure for Belgium but is still struggling to find the back of the net in the Negev after bouncing around Belgium with several clubs.
How will the shifting sands under the cleats of Israeli legionnaires impact the balance of power in the league? Given its financial clout and first digs at the legionnaires, it is hard to envision another club unseating Maccabi from its throne anytime soon. However, in light of the formidable challenge facing the team as it now prepares to play in the group stage, the vast amount of time and energy spent by Maccabi players may make them vulnerable to an opportunistic Beersheba team poised to wrest the brass ring from their Tel Aviv opponents, whose focus on the likes of Chelsea, FC Porto and Dynamo Kiev may trigger a combination of fatigue and complacency in the Israeli league chase.
Don Barnett is an IFA Player’s agent who currently resides in Munich. A native of Jerusalem, he grew up in the US where he practiced law and mediation. He also coached soccer and basketball in various youth leagues and wrote a sports column for several Jewish publications.