Israeli stars in Germany: What's the problem?

With the return of Gili Vermut to Hapoel Tel Aviv, only two legionnaires remain active in German soccer.

(photo credit: REUTERS)
The story of Israeli players and their campaigns in the coveted German Bundesliga has been largely one of disappointment and frustration.
With the return of Gili Vermut to Hapoel Tel Aviv last week, only two of our legionnaires remain active in German soccer.
Midfielder Almog Cohen is now beginning his third year at FC Nuremberg and forward Ben Sahar was just signed during the summer transfer window by second league Hertha Berlin, which is seeking a return to the first league after its relegation last spring.
Of all the major soccer nations, Germany has welcomed the smallest number of Israeli players to its ranks.
The reasons may seem inscrutable, but several explanations come to mind.
The Holocaust resulted in the virtual extinction of cultural ties between Israel and Germany for several decades while there was also a concern about the issue of security and the task of protecting Israeli athletes against terrorists, a concern which took on growing significance in the aftermath of the massacre of Israeli athletes in Munich during the Olympic Games of 1972.
Notwithstanding the seemingly impenetrable barrier, a couple of gallant players, Shmulik Rosenthal and David Pizanti, managed to get to the Bundesliga for brief and unremarkable stints in the 1970’s and 80’s, but then followed a lengthy hiatus which persisted for almost 20 years before the signing of the marvelous striker Roberto Colautti in 2007 by Borussia Monchengladbach.
As I have avidly followed German soccer for nearly a decade, I was not really surprised that most football fans there perceived Roberto as an Argentinian who grew up in Boca Juniors and ignored the naturalization process he underwwent to become an Israeli citizen.
That Roberto’s arrival was no fluke was confirmed a year later when Gal Alberman, Israel’s player of the year in 2008, joined Roberto at the same club and Almog Cohen landed in Nuremberg in 2010.
Both Roberto and Gal endured difficult times during their sojourns.
Roberto scored some key goals during his three-year term, including a crucial goal which saved the team from relegation in 2009, but was hampered by injuries and a surplus of strikers on the team resulted in limited action.
After his contract lapsed, Colautti elected to join the financially strengthened Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Alberman suffered a similar fate.
After a brilliant start with his new team, which was highlighted by a great performance in which he totally stymied the celebrated Brazilian midfielder Diego in a match against Werder Bremen, the club hired the portly Hans Meyer as coach, a move which proved a turning point for Gal.
Meyer had a distinct preference for wide bodied central midfielders, and did not resonate well with the sleek and slim Alberman, who relied more on finesse and technical skills rather than physicality.
Meyer thus placed Gal on the bench, and when he returned to play later in the season he sustained a leg injury which disabled him for much of his remaining tenure with the team.
He followed Colautti to Maccabi Tel Aviv in search of the new opportunity presented by the Canadian Jewish billionaire, Mitch Goldhar.
In the interim, Almog Cohen landed in Nuremberg after some incessant lobbying by the German football icon, Lothar Matthaus, who coached Cohen at Maccabi Netanya for a year. To date, Almog has enjoyed mixed success at FCN, marked by starting in half of the games while seeing limited duty in others. This year, he has been designated primarily as a bench player, and the German sports media observes in the main that his contract will not be extended beyond this season.
The case of Itay Shechter is a unique one which is deserving of special examination. As a brilliant young striker with several Israeli clubs, he was noted for his explosive speed and his superb scoring skills.
However, the one distressing aspect of his career in Israel was the fact that he was prone to injuries, and spent a good deal of time over several seasons recovering from various disabilities.
That said, it is widely known by soccer observers that the Bundesliga, which features crisp passing, constant ball movement and tenacious tackling, presents the most physically punishing game in Europe among major venues and that many of its players suffer injuries which sideline them for much of the season.
Itay could have chosen to play in England since he had accumulated enough appearances on Israel’s national team to gain a work permit, but wanted to embrace the challenge of the Bundesliga.
He wound up at Kaiserlautern, which was relegated at season’s end. He scored only three goals because of recurring injuries, which in retrospect seemed inevitable.
The club recently sent him out on loan to English club Swansea City, where the style of play is geared more to a quick tempo and wide open play and is thus more compatible with his own game.
If he can avoid injury he is likely to have a productive season.
As I have resided in Munich since 2004, I have followed the challenge of Israeli players whose main focus was getting to the Bundesliga with special interest. I made concerted efforts to land accomplished players such as Tal Ben Haim (the defender), Elyaniv Barda and Shlomi Arbeitman there but those efforts failed at the 11th hour due to reasons which I am clear were not purely professional.
I feel a great deal of satisfaction in the effort I have made in attempting to get Israeli athletes to the Bundesliga, which also included some well timed messages to Jewish Community leaders whenever I sensed that Israeli players were not treated with the same respect as those from other countries.
While the door has now reopened in theory to Israeli players, this opening seemingly narrows with each Israeli player who comes up short, since it sends a certain message to those decision makers who are not our foremost supporters.
It is only when an Israel player steps up and delivers on a major scale that we will witness the specter of real parity in the engagement of Israeli players by the Bundesliga.
Don Barnett is an IFA Player’s agent who currently resides in Munich. A native of Jerusalem, he grew up in the US where he practiced law and mediation. He also coached soccer and basketball in various youth leagues and wrote a sports column for several Jewish publications.