Saba and Radi: Lesser-known lights begin to shine bright

Sinai Says: After years in the shadows, a pair of veteran Israeli-Arab Premier League players are finally playing to their potential and getting the recognition they deserve.

Maccabi Netanya’s Ahmed Saba 311 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Maccabi Netanya’s Ahmed Saba 311
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
A quick glance at the Premier League’s top scorers so far this season reveals two names you would never expect to see.
This may sound overly harsh, but Ahmed Saba and Maharan Radi were supposed to be no more than mediocre players, the kind which rarely go noticed and experience a largely uneventful career.
That was indeed the case until this season, when Saba and Radi broke out of the stereotype and have taken the reins at their respective clubs, Maccabi Netanya and Bnei Sakhnin.
At 31, Saba’s career should be winding down to its inevitable end.
However, the striker is only now finally making his long overdue breakthrough, having scored a league-leading seven goals in the first nine matches of the season.
In fact, Saba has netted all seven of his goals in Netanya’s last six games, having missed two of the team’s first three matches through injury before coming on as a substitute to score two goals in the last four minutes of the 2-1 win over Bnei Yehuda.
He hasn’t been out of the starting line-up since and was brimming with confidence after Saturday’s 2-1 win over Hapoel Beersheba took Netanya to third place in the standings.
“We deserve to be placed among the top five,” he said. “We believe we can go far and we will continue to work hard to maintain this position.
I’m really not surprised by our position. We are capable of beating any team and I just hope that we can remain with our feet on the ground.”
Nothing went according to plan in Saba’s career and he very nearly never got his chance in the top-flight.
After 12 seasons in the lower divisions at Hapoel Majd el-Kurum, Hapoel Acre and Hapoel Bnei Lod, Saba finally got the opportunity he was waiting for when an almost bankrupt Netanya, looking for bargain buys, decided to bring him aboard in January 2009.
He only finally made his Premier League debut at the age of 29 at the start of the 2009/10 campaign, but he quickly established his place as a key member of the team, ending the season as its top scorer with nine league goals.
The Majd el-Kurum native, who still lives in the town with his wife and two children, quite amazingly started every one of Netanya’s 35 league matches last season, once more finishing as its top scorer, this time with 12 goals.
He is already well on the way to significantly improving that tally this season, and his contribution to the team both on and off the field was recognized when coach Reuven Atar decided to name him as the captain following Orel Dgani’s departure for Maccabi Haifa in August.
Thanks to four wins in its current six-match unbeaten streak, Netanya is just two points behind league-leader Maccabi Tel Aviv and its fans have secretly begun dreaming once more of a first championship since 1983.
Radi’s Bnei Sakhnin is just two points behind Netanya, and that is only because it was deducted those points by the Israel Football Association disciplinary court which found it guilty of paying Nastja Ceh under the table last season.
Radi has scored six league goals to date, but what makes his contribution so impressive is the fact that he has found the back of the net so many times from his position in the center of the field as Sakhnin’s playmaker.
While Saba’s talent was a well-kept secret until two years ago, Radi’s potential was there for every one to see in the past decade.
The midfielder came through Maccabi Tel Aviv’s youth system and after several seasons in the lower divisions, got his chance in the top-flight at Maccabi Herzliya, playing for the club between 2006 and 2008.
Two excellent years at Bnei Yehuda followed, before the Sulam village native and resident decided to return closer to home and play for Hapoel Acre last season.
The 29-year-old shined yet again, and this past summer Hapoel Tel Aviv came knocking. However, after Yossi Abuksis was replaced as coach by Dror Kashtan before even guiding Hapoel in a single match, Sakhnin stepped in and snapped up what has already become one of the best signings made in Israel this year.
The religious Radi, who makes sure to perform Islam’s five daily prayers, didn’t score in Sakhnin’s 3- 0 victory over Betar Jerusalem on Monday, but he provided the assist for the third goal and is still dreaming of playing in Europe one day.
“I can’t explain why I haven’t found my place in a big team in Israel, but for me Sakhnin is just as big as any other team and I will always give my all for any team I play for,” he said. “In Israel you are told you are over the hill at 28, but things are different abroad. I’m just as good as some of the Israeli players currently playing in Europe and I know I can make it there.”
Radi is unlikely to ever get his chance on the continent and Saba will probably never get to play for a bigger club than Netanya.
However, thanks to their sensational starts to the season, both are finally getting the recognition they deserve, at last living the dream of all those so-called average players who are so easily ignored.
Follow Allon Sinai on Twitter: @AllonSinai