Blue-and-white blood seeping into European soccer stream

Sinai Says: Many Israeli players have moved to Europe over the past year hoping to follow in the footsteps of superstar Yossi Benayoun.

Benayoun 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Benayoun 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Israeli export? Hi-Tech? Perhaps citrus fruit? Rudeness? Whatever it is, it’s unlikely to be soccer players.
But amazingly, and somewhat inexplicably, Israeli players have become a prime commodity in European leagues this summer.
Over 30 Israelis will be playing across the continent this season, an all-time record. For the first time ever, Israel will have representatives in each of the big five European leagues – England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France.

It wasn’t that long ago that playing abroad was the ultimate sign of success for an Israeli player.
Only the cream of the crop got a chance in Europe and the hype surrounding their careers turned them into household names.
However, there is no point in trying to compare Ronny Rosenthal and Eli Ohana with the likes of youngsters Liroy Zhairi and Dor Malul.
All four may have begun their continental careers in Belgium, but while Rosenthal and Ohana will forever be remembered as two of the greatest Israeli players of all time, Zhairi (KV Mechelen) and Malul (Beerschot AC) could go their entire careers without even making a single appearance for the national team.
However, it is because the likes of Zhairi and Malul are finding teams in Europe that the current trend is so fascinating.
There is no one particular reason why Israeli players have all of the sudden become so attractive. But there are several explanations that can help rationalize the inflation in local soccer exports this summer.
First of all, you have to take into account the growing influence of Israeli agents in Europe.
While the likes of Pini Zahavi and Ronen and Gilad Katzav have long held a strong and often legendary reputation, in recent years dozens of new agents have flooded the market.
While a country with the soccer heritage of Portugal has only 64 registered agents, Israel has 65.
However, as good as an agent is, he is not an alchemist.
The players have to come up with the goods when given their chance, and it is because the likes of Elyaniv Barda (KRC Genk) and Maor Melikson (Wisla Krakow) have made such a strong and quick impression that their countrymen have received an opportunity to ply their trade on the continent.
By scoring 16 league goals in his first season at Genk in 2007/08, Barda changed the course of the career of several of his countrymen, with six Israelis currently playing in the Belgian top flight, including Lior Rafaelov, who was purchased from Maccabi Haifa by Club Brugge for some 2.5 million euro in June.
Melikson only joined Krakow in January, but he has been such a resounding success that three more Israelis have since followed in his footsteps, including Dudu Biton, who is now his teammate.
The recent appearances of Israeli clubs in the group stage of the Champions League have also had a strong effect on the appeal of local players.
Eran Zahavi (Palermo), Danny Bondarv (Volga Nizhny Novgorod), Gili Vermut (Kaiserslautern), Itai Shechter (Kaiserslautern) and Ben Sahar (AJ Auxerre) were all key members of the Hapoel Tel Aviv squad which played in European soccer’s premier competition last season and have all moved on to greener pastures this summer.
Rafaelov, Dekel Keinan (Cardiff City), Biram Kiyal (Celtic) and Shlomi Arbeitman (KAA Gent) are also all playing on the continent after starring in Haifa’s Champions League campaign in 2009/10.
Despite the recent influx, there are still only very few Israelis playing at the very highest level, with Yossi Benayoun (Chelsea) still standing head-and-shoulders above the rest of the pack.
However, more Israelis than ever now have the chance to break through in Europe, and should at least several of them succeed, local soccer will never be the same.
There seem to be two main immediate implications.
The Israeli Premier League will surely suffer from losing so much talent, but the places vacated on lineups will also allow more young players to prove their worth.
The national team will also likely benefit from having more players with European experience, with much of the blue-and-white squad to profit from the continent’s superior infrastructure and training schemes.
One thing is for sure, however.
The way the Israelis play in Europe this season will have long lasting repercussions on the future of local soccer, making the coming months especially intriguing for everyone involved in the sport – particularly for those players hoping to ride the current fad and realize their dreams of being paid in euros.
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