November’s roller coaster

Maccabi star Eran Zahavi will have a hard time forgetting the highs and lows of this past month.

A shirtless fan takes a swing at Maccabi Tel Aviv's Eran Zahavi (photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
A shirtless fan takes a swing at Maccabi Tel Aviv's Eran Zahavi
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
For better or worse, Eran Zahavi will never forget the month of November.
A roller coaster of emotions, with highs such as the Israel national team’s 3-0 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina and lows like the Tel Aviv derby debacle, Zahavi seems to have experienced it all in November 2014.
The month began with a night that will haunt Israeli soccer for many years to come.
During the 33rd minute of the Tel Aviv derby between Zahavi’s Maccabi and Hapoel, a fan of the latter jumped out of the stands and ran onto the pitch to confront the Maccabi star. The two exchanged blows for over 10 seconds, until the intruder was finally dragged off the field by stewards.
Zahavi was sent off for his part in the brawl, and it took over 10 minutes until the match could be resumed. Zahavi, who had scored Maccabi’s equalizer in the 22nd minute and celebrated in front of the Hapoel faithful with his controversial gun-slinging routine, couldn’t believe he was being sent off – and demanded that the rest of the team leave the pitch with him.
It took around 10 minutes until he ultimately made his way to the dressing room, with sporting director Jordi Cruyff by his side. The match restarted, but it quickly became apparent that it had no sporting value. Several Maccabi fans jumped out of the stands and ran across the pitch towards the Hapoel supporters.
It was complete chaos and the referee blew his whistle to end proceedings, sending both teams to the safety of the dressing rooms.
Zahavi 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 arch-rival Maccabi in January 2013.
He has since been on the receiving end of endless abuse from Hapoel fans, and has replied by firing imaginary shots with his fingers towards the Hapoel stands; he did so for the first time after scoring in his team’s 1-0 victory in the derby last December.
It has since become his trademark goal celebration, antagonizing rival supporters, especially those of Hapoel.
After scoring his first goal for Maccabi against Hapoel in last April’s 2-0 victory at Bloomfield Stadium, 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-thetop celebration.
It was remarkably reminiscent of his celebration on May 15, 2010, a day Hapoel supporters will never forget. After clinching the championship for Hapoel in the most dramatic of fashions with a goal against Beitar Jerusalem two minutes into stoppage time, Zahavi jumped up into the Hapoel stands 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,” said Zahavi’s previous coach at Maccabi Paulo Sousa. “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 it isn’t just important to win, but to also feel the desire and passion to win – and Eran has that.”
Both Maccabi and Hapoel were ultimately deducted one point by the Israel Football Association’s High Court for their fans’ behavior, while Zahavi was suspended for one match, missing the encounter against Maccabi Netanya.
As a result, Zahavi couldn’t extended his record scoring streak, which had seen him find the back of the net in 10 consecutive Premier League matches, stretching back to last season. However, Zahavi, who broke the previous record set by Moti Kakon in 1997, picked up where he left off when he returned to the pitch in the Israel national team’s impressive win over Bosnia-Herzegovina in Euro 2016 qualification.
It had been 15 years since the blueand- white had triumphed in similar circumstances, when it beat Austria in 1999 – with Israel coming up short time and again when qualification for a major tournament was on the line. But the national team outplayed the No. 1 seed in its Euro 2016 qualifying group to record its third-straight win to start the campaign, with Zahavi scoring Israel’s third goal.
Zahavi also found the back of the net in his first match for Maccabi since the derby, but it was no more than a consolation goal in a 2-1 defeat to Ironi Kiryat Shmona.
Yet he led the yellow-and-blue back to winning ways last weekend, netting twice to extend his personal scoring streak to 13 league games, taking his overall tally over that remarkable period to 20 goals.
Zahavi is determined to better his total from last season, when he scored 29 goals to come within a single goal of the all-time record.
“I hope I can break the record, but I’m taking it one match at a time,” he said, after Saturday’s brace in the 3-0 victory over Hapoel Haifa. “The most important goal, however, is to achieve our targets as a team.”
Maccabi is aiming to win its third consecutive league championship, something only Maccabi Haifa has accomplished over the past 50 years. Zahavi joined the yellowand- blue less than two years ago, but has already achieved legendary status at the club.
The 27-year-old arrived at Maccabi from Italian club Palermo in January 2013, and has exceeded all expectations. After playing a key role in Hapoel Tel Aviv’s run to the championship in 2009-2010, 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 in at the club and came back home to help the yellow-and-blue in its push for the league title.
Zahavi ended up proving crucial to Maccabi’s first league championship in 10 years, finishing the season with seven goals in 16 appearances. He became the highest-paid player in the league earlier this year after coming to terms with Maccabi on a new five-year deal; he signed a contract extension which guarantees him a salary estimated at €600,000 (almost NIS 3 million) per season.
The past month proved once more that no one in Israeli sports plays the roles of hero and villain better than Zahavi.
With over six months of action still to come this season, including two crucial Euro 2016 qualifiers for Israel, there is no telling what might happen in the next chapter of the Zahavi story.
One thing is for sure: It is bound to be eventful.