Second chances

Eliran Atar’s transformation from young delinquent to soccer superstar is finally complete.

Eliran Atar (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Eliran Atar
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
It wasn’t that long ago that Eliran Atar was known for his antics off the field just as much as his talent on it. While he may currently be scorching the Premier League with rampant league-leader Maccabi Tel Aviv, up until this season there were serious doubts regarding his ability to fully realize his potential.
But there was never any question about Atar’s promise.
He was only 17 years old when he made his debut with Bnei Yehuda in 2004, and he became a fixture on the team in the subsequent seasons. However, just when it seemed that everything was finally falling into place for the prodigious striker, it all very nearly fell apart.
At the age of 19, Atar’s career came to a grinding halt.
He paid a heavy price for keeping the wrong company.
In April 2006, two of his friends decided to spend an evening snatching handbags from women, with Atar given the job of driving the getaway car. The three were quickly tracked down by police, and Atar was given a six-month prison sentence, which was converted to community service.
However, Bnei Yehuda gave him a second chance when nobody else would, and he would repay them handsomely. Atar not only ended the 2008/09 campaign as the joint top-scorer in the Premier League with 14 goals, but he found the back of the net in true style.
His sensational bicycle kick from the edge of the area against Maccabi Netanya at the start of February 2009 will be remembered as one of the greatest goals ever scored in Israel and was one of 10 candidates for goal of the year in the world.
Bnei Yehuda also profited $1.2 million from the sale of Atar to Maccabi Tel Aviv in May 2010. And after scoring 31 goals in his first two campaigns with the yellowand- blue, the striker has truly terrorized Premier League defenses this season. He is on course to break Nissim Elmalich’s record of 30 goals in a season, set in the 1954/55 campaign, scoring 21 goals in 23 league appearances so far.
Thanks to Atar’s contribution, Tel Aviv currently leads the standings by eight points over Maccabi Haifa, with 12 more matches to be played.
Nevertheless, as hard as he may try, Atar’s past will forever haunt him, with fans of Maccabi’s rivals continually reminding him of his darker days with chants from the stands.
“It is all behind me now. I’ve found ways to ignore them,” Atar told The Jerusalem Post. “It really no longer bothers me. In the past it used to unnerve me, but today I hardly notice it. As far as I’m concerned, they can continue with it.”
After being burnt by the media’s coverage of his runin with the law, Atar refused to give interviews for two years. However, he promised Maccabi’s sports director Jordi Cruyff that he would speak to the press when he reached 20 goals for the season, and he lived up to his word after achieving the target with a brace against Hapoel Tel Aviv in the 4-0 derby drubbing last month.
“The win in the derby was a big step towards the championship, but there is still a long way to go,” says Atar. “We are only in February. There are still three more months left in the season, and I think it is a little too early to be talking about winning the championship.
However, I do think that it is our title to take.”
Maccabi remains the most decorated club in Israeli soccer but hasn’t won the championship since the 2002/03 season and has had just a single league title to its name since 1996.
That all seems set to change this season, with Tel Aviv winning eight of its past 10 contests, including its past five, to open a significant gap over Haifa.
“I’m not going to say that we are the best team in the country, but we proved we are a good team,” Atar says, before speaking candidly of what has led to his sensational season.
“First and foremost, I have matured a lot. There are two reasons behind my improvement. I have changed my attitude, and I’ve also really bonded with the new staff. I’ve stopped asking questions and do exactly as I’m told. It’s not that I wasn’t behaving professionally before, but I wasn’t as mature and didn’t comprehend everything I was being told. I used to always question what I was told and only then went ahead and did it.
Today, I do what I’m told and don’t ask any questions.”
Atar explains that the new coaching staff has brought a different attitude and mentality to the club, resulting in the players’ being more committed than ever. Cruyff brought in Barcelona youth team coach Oscar Garcia to guide Maccabi last summer, with the Spaniard adding several more of his countrymen to the coaching staff.
“I’ve heard that some players on the team have said that Oscar is distant towards the squad, but I think it is better off this way,” Atar says. “Juan’s [head fitness coach Juan Jose Toriso] fitness training sessions are of a completely different level to anything I previously experienced. You can see it in the way we run in the 85th minute of matches.”
Atar also describes how the new staff gives the players peace of mind and allows them to focus on soccer before speaking of his dream of playing in Europe.
“I’m ready for a move to Europe, but I think it is too early to talk about it at the moment,” he says. “Every player dreams of playing in Europe, but I don’t want to play in just any league. I won’t leave for Europe for just any offer because I’m loving life at Maccabi.”
The transformation from young delinquent to soccer superstar is finally complete. And thanks to Atar’s newfound maturity, the good old days are back again at Maccabi.
“I’m aiming to score as many goals as possible,” he says. “But before I think of how many goals I’m going to score, I think of what I can do best to help the team.
That is also part of the change I’ve undergone.”