In twilight of career, Benayoun more of a distraction than contributor

There is no doubt Benayoun will be remembered as one of the greatest players in Israeli soccer history.

Beitar Jerusalem midfielder Yossi Benayoun. (photo credit: UDI ZITIAT)
Beitar Jerusalem midfielder Yossi Benayoun.
(photo credit: UDI ZITIAT)
If only we all had the self-confidence of Yossi Benayoun.
We, too, could also stroll the earth believing that we are the best at whatever we may do, convinced that we are undervalued while ignoring reality whenever convenient.
There is no doubt Benayoun will be remembered as one of the greatest players in Israeli soccer history.
The problem is, the most recent of those memories is at least five years old.
At 37 years of age, Benayoun is well past his peak. But while even he recognizes that his best years are behind him, he simply seems to be unable to comprehend how far he has fallen.
Despite the fact he has played for eight different coaches at three different clubs over the past four seasons, Benayoun still seems to somehow believe that almost each and every one of them had something personal against him.
After all, how else is it possible to explain that he isn’t in the starting lineup in every match? And what could be the reason, other than a personal vendetta, for a coach who not only puts him on the substitutes’ bench, but then asks him to warm-up before ultimately sending on another player? That has been a recurring theme since Benayoun’s return to Israel in the summer of 2014, with his personal drama constantly overshadowing his team’s results, good or bad.
Benayoun is convinced he doesn’t receive the respect he deserves, either from the fans or the coaching staff, but can’t really explain how he has managed to alienate so many people.
Benayoun has reached a situation in which he is so unwelcome at the club for which he has played more than any other in Israel, being booed by Maccabi Haifa supporters even while playing for the Israel national team when it hosted Albania in a 2018 World Cup qualifier in Haifa last year.
And it isn’t just the supporters who begrudge Benayoun. Haifa owner Jacob Shachar mocked the player last week when he said that while Benayoun may have claimed that he used to cry while driving to Haifa for the side’s training sessions as he wasn’t treated by the management the way he believed he deserved to be, he was laughing all the way to the bank due to his hefty salary.
Benayoun is playing for his third team in three seasons, joining Beitar Jerusalem last summer after one year at Maccabi Tel Aviv. The midfielder played two seasons at Maccabi Haifa before leaving in acrimonious fashion in the summer of 2016.
He spent just one season at Maccabi Tel Aviv after 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-andblue in the coming season.
It seems Cruyff predicted the problems an unhappy Benayoun could cause and he has instead become Beitar Jerusalem’s headache, with his moody behavior casting a constant shadow on what has been a superb start to the season for the club.
Benayoun has so far started just two league matches in 2017/18, coming on as a substitute 11 times. He spent yet another 90 minutes watching Beitar from the bench on Monday, with Jerusalem defeating Hapoel Haifa 2-0 to move back up to first place in the Premier League standings for at least 24 hours.
The disgruntled midfielder may feel he is disrespected, but the reality points to the contrary.
Last week he met with club owner Eli Tabib and boss Eli Ohana to discuss his situation with the January transfer window now open, and the parties agreed to meet again this week to reevaluate his position. Few players, if any at all, would receive similar personal treatment.
As things stand, he looks set to continue at Beitar until the end of the season.
Beitar knows Benayoun’s threats are empty.
Not only is it becoming clearer with every week that he is far from a vital part of the squad, but he has very few options at his disposal should he ask to leave.
Benayoun must surely understand that he has gone wrong somewhere when he sees that Maccabi Petah Tikva is the biggest club showing interest in his services.
Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Tel Aviv are still trying to put his time at the club behind them, while Hapoel Beersheba, at which he began his senior career in 1997, has absolutely no interest in disrupting its squad with his addition.
The only thing going for Benayoun at the moment is the support he is receiving from the Beitar fans.
They continue to chant his name in every match, complaining when he is left out of the starting lineup and booing coach Benny Ben-Zaken whenever he sends on a different substitute.
Beitar may be in the thick of the title race, but Ben-Zaken continues to hear calls for his head, with Benayoun’s lack of playing time being one of the main reasons.
The fans’ fascination with Benayoun is making an already difficult job almost impossible for Ben-Zaken.
While any coach willing to work for Eli Tabib should take into account it will be anything but a smooth ride, it is hard not to feel sorry for Ben-Zaken. Time and again over recent weeks, the poppy-eyed 35-year-old has had to answer questions regarding his future with the team, regardless of whether it had just lost or won.
Two weeks ago he was summoned to a one-on-one conversation with club boss Ohana in which he was reprimanded for the team’s poor play. As if that wasn’t humiliating enough, he then had to read all about it in the media, with the content of the meeting quickly being leaked Perhaps Ohana thought that would help appease the club’s fans, who have been on Ben-Zaken’s case almost from day one.
Ben-Zaken’s appointment as Beitar’s head coach at the end of September caught most people by surprise, including the fans who had hoped for a bigger name. Beitar sacked Sharon Mimer four days before the start of the Premier League campaign, after he clashed with owner Tabib. His assistant Gili Lavenda guided the team to three wins and two draws to begin the season.
Nevertheless, he wasn’t handed the reins on a full-time basis, with the inexperienced Ben-Zaken being put in charge in his place.
Ben-Zaken’s only previous experience in the top flight is guiding Ironi Kiryat Shmona for three matches last season before clashing with owner Izzy Sheratzky and being fired. He went on to coach Hapoel Katamon in the National League before also beginning this season in the second division as the boss of Hapoel Afula.
That is not the kind of resume Beitar supporters expect from their coach, and it wouldn’t be long before he received constant boos and raucous calls for his sacking. The fact the team has displayed erratic form (despite eking out positive results) obviously hasn’t helped.
What also hasn’t been helpful is Benayoun’s conduct.
Ben-Zaken is clearly trying to do what is best for his team, and at the moment that seems to include leaving Benayoun off the pitch. The veteran may be unable to accept that, but Beitar fans should do so as soon as possible. Beitar players have rallied behind Ben-Zaken and have spoken numerous times of the disruption caused by the campaign being waged against the coach.
Of course, there is one man who could put a stop to this, but so far Benayoun continues to put his own interests ahead of those of the team.
There may very well come a time when Benayoun will fit into Ben-Zaken’s plans, but until that happens, he has turned into a distraction threatening to derail what could be a magical season for Beitar.