African players add muscle to Israel

Israel Under-21 coach Guy Levi says clubs look to African players for their physical strength.

Betar Boateng 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Betar Boateng 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Most African soccer players dream of joining a glamorous European club and becoming a superstar. More and more, however, are heading to Israel, a small but soccer-crazed nation ready to pay high salaries. Although Israel is in the Middle East, it competes in European competitions such as the Champions League and UEFA Cup, making it a desirable destination for many up-and-coming players. Ghana midfielder Derek Boateng, who spent several seasons playing in Greece and Sweden, made the jump to Israel in 2006, signing with Betar Jerusalem. "When I got an offer from Betar I decided to come because I heard that Betar was planning to challenge in the Champions League," said Boateng, who has played for AIK Stockholm and Panathinaikos. "We have won one championship and now we are on the way to a second championship." Betar, which is owned by billionaire businessman Arkadi Gaydamak, leads the Israeli league by 11 points. If the team wins the title, it will have a chance to reach the group stage of next season's Champions League. At last month's African Cup of Nations in Ghana, Israeli league scouts watched matches alongside their counterparts from mainland Europe, looking for talent from among the 16 teams. The list of Africans competing in Israel is already growing, with players from Rwanda, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Zambia appearing in the league. Israel Under-21 coach Guy Levi said clubs look to African players for their physical strength. "If an African player is not skillful you will find him to be physically fit most of the time, and this is a quality that most clubs here look for," Levi said in a telephone interview from Tel Aviv. Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Nir Levin said the bigger Israeli clubs pay the players more than second-tier European teams, but still consider them a bargain. "It's a fair deal for both the club and the player," Levin said, noting that successful players can be sold to other European clubs for big money. At the African Cup, Clifford Mulenga, the continent's Young Player of Year in 2007, was being targeted by Maccabi Petach Tikva. The Israeli club was hoping to sign the 20-year-old Zambia winger on a long-term contract, but reportedly faced a rival bid from a European club. Petach Tikva already has Nigerian midfielders Blessing Kaku and Felix Obuka. Kaku represented his country at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Maccabi Haifa defender Tsepo Masilela and teammate Thembinkosi "Terror" Fanteni played for South Africa at the continental championship, and midfielder Bamuza Sono, the son of South African soccer great Jomo Sono, joined Maccabi Netanya last month. "The Israeli league is quite competitive," said Nana Kwaku Agyemang, who coaches Sekondi Eleven Wise, one of Ghana's oldest clubs. "Although Europe remains a more preferred choice for most of them, Israel is certainly seen as an interesting option, too." At the last World Cup, Ghana defender John Paintsil celebrated his team's 2-0 win over the Czech Republic by raising the Israeli flag. Paintsil, who played for Tel Aviv clubs Maccabi and Hapoel from 2002-06 before joining West Ham after the World Cup, said the action was meant to thank the Israeli people for their support.