Israeli soccer icon Cohen laid to rest

‘Avileh’ will always be remembered as a warm soul who lifted the spirits of a nation.

Avi Cohen Funeral 311 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Avi Cohen Funeral 311
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
As great a soccer player as Avi Cohen was, he was even more impressive as a human being.
In a day and age in which sporting stardom has reached unimaginable heights, Cohen was forever down to earth.
Always gracious and classy, Cohen made sure to be around to lend a helping hand to anyone who needed one, whether or not he was asked.
Like many sports journalists in Israel, I too had the honor to speak to Cohen on several occasions. No one could wish for a better interviewee.
While most athletic stars become more and more inaccessible, Cohen understood his place in Israeli soccer history and treated it as a privilege rather than a burden.
But for those who never met Cohen, he will first and foremost be remembered as the pioneer who set the foundations for local soccer’s progress to the European stage.
More than 31 years have passed since his transfer from Maccabi Tel Aviv to Liverpool, but to this day, it remains the most astounding of moves by an Israeli sportsman.
For a blue-and-white player to reach a club of the stature of Liverpool is nothing short of extraordinary. But in 1979 it was simply beyond the realm of reality.
In those days Liverpool was on a different planet in soccer terms. Not only was it the greatest club in the world at the time, but it also only signed foreign players on the rarest of occasions.
Israeli soccer was still 13 years away from participating in European competitions, having to face Asian opponents in its attempt to qualify for the 1974 and 1978 World Cups.
Local players were of nearly no interest to continental clubs, but Cohen broke through these boundaries and set the allimportant precedent.
As staggering as his departure for Merseyside was, it was no mistake.
Liverpool knew exactly why it was signing its first foreign player in 24 years.
A week of training under the watchful eye of Bob Paisley was all the great manager needed before deciding to make Cohen the first Israeli to play in the English top flight.
Cohen’s athletic ability combined with his rare understanding of the game saw him make 24 appearances over two seasons in what was the best team of its time.
He is best remembered at Anfield for scoring a famous goal in the 1979/80 title clincher against Aston Villa, with the defender also netting an own goal in the 4-1 victory.
Three decades have gone by and even though Liverpool only experienced two years of his leadership and character, Cohen was never forgotten.
A testament to this was seen last night when a period of applause was observed ahead of the team’s Premier League match with Wolverhampton Wanderers, with both sets of players also wearing black armbands to mark the sad news.
Locally, Cohen will always be associated with Maccabi Tel Aviv, at which he made 337 appearances, becoming one of the greatest symbols of the club while leading it to the league and cup double in 1976/77 as well as the 1978/79 championship.
After retiring from active play in 1990, Cohen tried his luck in coaching.
But the harsh, backstabbing world of managing was not for him, after all, he only always wanted to do good by everyone.
In 2005, he was chosen as the head of Israel’s soccer Players Association, a job far more fitting of his nature as it required him to help players stand up for their rights in the difficult environment of local soccer.
All of this came to an end last Monday when he was gravely injured in a motorbike accident in Ramat Gan.
His family and loved ones never lost hope, but ultimately he succumbed to his wounds early Wednesday morning, being laid to rest at the age of 54 in the late afternoon at Ramat Hasharon cemetery.
A tragic and unnecessary accident robbed Israeli sports of one of its greatest heroes, a true gentleman both on and off the field.
Avileh, you will be sorely missed.