Enjoying Zahavi’s fairytale Maccabi return

After six years abroad in China and Holland, Israeli superstar striker thrilled to be back in Tel Aviv.

 ERAN ZAHAVI dribbles the ball against Aris Thessaloniki in Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 2-0 first-leg win over the Greek side in Conference Leagure third-round qualifying. (photo credit: MACCABI TEL AVIV/COURTESY)
ERAN ZAHAVI dribbles the ball against Aris Thessaloniki in Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 2-0 first-leg win over the Greek side in Conference Leagure third-round qualifying.

Arguably the greatest Israeli goal-scorer in the country’s history is back home and already filling the opposing team’s nets.

Eran Zahavi made his return to the Bloomfield Stadium pitch last week and helped his new/old team Maccabi Tel Aviv by scoring a goal in a 2-0 win over Aris Thessaloniki in the first leg of third-round Conference League qualifying.The now 35-year-old striker donned the yellow-and-blue kit for the first time since 2016 when he last played for Maccabi in a 6-0 league win over Maccabi Haifa before heading east and to China where he became the country’s most prolific scorer. After four seasons with Guangzhou R&F, Zahavi made his way to Holland where he signed with PSV Eindhoven and continued to score in bunches while helping the team capture the KNVB Cup in 2022.

But following PSV’s knockout round playoff Conference League win last season over Maccabi Tel Aviv and an emotional visit to Bloomfield Stadium where he was feted as a returning hero by the fans who sang his name countless times, the wheels began to spin for Zahavi to make his return a permanent one.

And that is what happened over the summer as the Rishon Lezion native put pen to paper and made his long-awaited comeback to Israel and Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Heading into the third round of qualifying this season, Zahavi had yet to play an official game as he continued to recover from minor surgery, but head coach Vladen Ivic made a surprise announcement prior to the game that the striker would not only see minutes in the first leg against Aris but may also start the game.

While he didn’t open in the starting lineup, he did come on in the 66th minute and almost scored on his first touch of the ball, which would have blown the top off of the stadium.

But no worries, the fans didn’t have to wait much longer as Zahavi took a nice tap from Stipe Perica and slotted it off of the left post and into the goal to give Maccabi a 2-0 win, allowing the club to head to Greece next week for the second leg with some breathing room.

Speaking for the first time following his dramatic comeback to the Holy Land, Zahavi opened up about a myriad of topics from recovering from surgery, to his emotions about returning home and, of course, the game itself and what Maccabi will need to do in order to punch its ticket to the playoff round, where a date with Nice from France is already waiting.

“My goal was really helpful for us going into the second leg with a 2-0 result which is a better score than 1-0,” Zahavi began. “This will be a tough game away in front of a very good home crowd, so nothing is guaranteed. Daniel Peretz made some huge saves for us in this game and we still have plenty of hard work in order to continue on our upward track.”

As for the goal itself, Zahavi reiterated that scoring at home is always going to be different than any of the other goals he had scored over the past half-decade plus.

“I waited a long time for this goal. I’ve scored many goals in the last six seasons and with the Israel National Team. That was exciting, and in China it was exciting and in the Netherlands it was exciting. But here is my home and it will always be even more exciting and a different type of feeling.”

Zahavi had spent some time debating internally if a return to Israel and Maccabi Tel Aviv was truly the correct decision at this stage of his career after his contract with PSV was coming to an end. Or perhaps, another year or two abroad would have been a wiser choice before coming back. However, the superstar together with his family felt that the time was now especially after the warm welcome he received in February when he played at Bloomfield with the Dutch side.

“The game with PSV here at Bloomfield last season was something that played a big part in me returning. It was very exciting. The honor and love that the fans gave me was something that I didn’t take for granted. I’m happy that it occurred and that I can pay the fans back on the pitch.

“The fans were a major part of me returning due to my strong connection to the supporters and the club. I’m happy that we had this special and exciting moment together as it was very emotional and I hope that we have many more this season. There is no one happier than me and I hope that this will continue as these are the types of things I want to experience at Bloomfield.”

Just before Zahavi made the move official, he underwent minor knee surgery as soon as the off-season began and it was not something that the striker had been used to, being the first time in his career that he had to go under the knife.

“It wasn’t easy returning to play. I came to training camp and couldn’t totally control myself as I was excited and a bit emotional. I went straight into training with the team at 100% which is something that shouldn’t have happened. I am not blaming anyone and the responsibility was totally on me. I felt good but after a few practices I had some issues along the way. I am getting better each day and today when the team needed me I was happy that I could help.

“In general the surgery went according to plan and after three weeks I was already back on the field. I trained as well in Dubai and Amsterdam and everything was normal. Fortunately this was the first operation I had in my career and I didn’t really know the entire procedure as I have no experience in these things. I pushed myself a bit more than usual and I went a bit backwards in my recovery. Perhaps it was all for the good.”

Over the past month, Zahavi had time to spend just watching and observing his new teammates and understanding how he would fit into Ivic’s puzzle once he was able to return to the pitch.

“I was watching from the side over the past month and every tactical training session I was watching to see and understand what the coach demanded. The demands are really very high and as time goes on we will become even stronger and even better. I was happy to see that we believe in ourselves and in our way of playing as well as our energy. Energy is very important in football. The vibe around the club must be influential and when it is, we will be able to do big things.”

While Zahavi returns to Maccabi with some familiar faces, there are many more new ones, including a budding star in Oscar Glouch, who has been rumored for quite some time to be heading abroad.

But for now, Zahavi knows he has a leadership role to play with some of the young players, including Glouch, who he was able to share the pitch with for the final 25 minutes of the game.

“I’ve only had three training sessions with everyone so it’s difficult for me to say that much about Oscar. However, he is very talented and we all saw that at the European Championships and he has a lot of room to continue to improve. He’s a good kid, a professional and works hard. Good players enjoy playing together and can understand each other easily and this will continue to improve the more we play together.”

Prior to the game, the Maccabi fans serenaded Zahavi by singing his cheer based off of Israeli singing legend Ishai Levy’s song “Rikdi” and although he didn’t start. when he came on, he almost scored on his first touch.

“It was crazy that I almost scored on my first touch of the ball which would have been incredible. It was really exciting. So many people had been waiting a long time for this and there had been a lot of talk about my return.“I felt a bit of pressure when I heard the coach say that I could possibly start, but I knew that wasn’t really in the plans. If he would have told me to, then I would have. I was excited to play and I am happy that it helped the club and It gave us a good push. I’m a small part of this team, every player who played well and gave 100% which is really the most important thing.”

Zahavi understands very well that the minute he is on the pitch, the players around him are that much more committed to the cause and will put out even more effort. In the second leg of the second round of qualifying against Zira in a game that ended in a listless goalless draw, Zahavi saw from up close that the players needed a shot in the arm to get things going.

“We won 3-0 in the first game against Zira and the second leg was quiet at home and the energy wasn’t as good, but again it was only the third game of the season and we want to keep building game by game. Every player needs to raise his game and those who did so in the win against Aris deserve kudos for doing so.”

While all three Israeli teams left in continental competition – Maccabi Tel Aviv, Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Beersheba – are in fine form, Zahavi knows that he and his club only have control of their own game and have no say in their fellow Israeli teams’ matchups.

“I don’t really want to talk about other clubs. Maccabi Haifa made some good signings and we saw them play Olympiacos and they played great against Limassol as well. They deserve credit for that but we are competing and I don’t control what they are doing. We can only control what we do.”