Sinai Says: The best of the best of the past decade
Sinai Says The best of
By ALLON SINAI
There are quite a few reasons why I chose soccer player Yossi Benayoun as my Israeli athlete of the decade ahead of windsurfer Gal Fridman.
The fact that Benayoun shines in the most competitive sport on earth, while windsurfing is an afterthought at best in most countries is one. Another is that Benayoun has been in the limelight throughout the decade, while all of Fridman's achievements came in the first five years of the 21st century, most notably in that one fateful week at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
However, there was another factor that was far more decisive in my eyes.
We have gotten so used to Benayoun making tens of thousands of pounds a week that it is easy to forget his remarkable rags to riches life story.
Benayoun is not only a great sportsman, but also an incredible inspiration, and for that alone he deserves to be crowned as Israel's top athlete of the decade.
No. 2 Gal Fridman
The Karkur native may have accomplished very little since 2004. However, the fact that he achieved the ultimate sporting triumph is more than enough to ensure his place among Israel's greatest athletes, not to mention the country's best sportsmen and women of the aughts.
Fridman's career hit a crossroads at the turn of the decade. Despite winning an Olympic bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games at the age of 21, Fridman missed out on the 2000 Sydney Olympics, losing to Amit Inbar in the battle to represent Israel.
Fridman was just 25, but he was seriously considering his future in the uninspiring sport, and kept his windsurfing career on the backburner for over a year while spending more and more time on his hobby of mountain biking.
In 2001, Fridman returned with a vengeance, keen to prove that he is Israel's and the world's best.
He finished third in the European Championships and fourth in the Worlds, and a year later was crowned world champion for the only time in his career at the event held in Pattaya, Thailand.
His third place finish at the Worlds in 2003 cemented his place as Israel's representative at the Athens Games, but there were serious concerns regarding his form entering the Olympics after he ended that year's World and European Championships in 20th and 23rd positions, respectively.
There was no reason to worry, however, with Fridman finishing each and every one of the 11 races in the Aegean Sea in the top 10, winning two of them. He ended the dramatic final race in second place, leapfrogging the other contenders into first position overall and becoming Israel's first, and still only, Olympic gold medalist.
Fridman achieved very little after that, and his illustrious career finally drew to a close last year after Shahar Zubari beat him for a place at the Beijing Olympics.
While Fridman may not have managed to end his career on a high, that is of no real importance. For he is responsible for having the Hatikva played at the Olympic Games for the first time ever and history will forever cherish that.
1. Yossi Benayoun
It is difficult to decide how to tell the Yossi Benayoun story, so I guess I'll start at the very beginning.
Born May 5, 1980, Benayoun was raised in the southern town of Dimona, known for its nuclear reactor and high unemployment rate.
Benayoun made his first steps at the Hapoel Beersheba youth department and his talent was apparent for all to see right from the start.
He would regularly hitchhike the 60-kilometer roundtrip to Beersheba with his father, but before too long he was playing much further away.
After staring for Israel's youth teams he was scouted by Dutch giant Ajax and almost immediately made his mark in the Netherlands.
Benayoun, however, would struggle to settle in Amsterdam and was back in Israel after just eight months. He returned to Beersheba and at the age of 17 made his debut for the club.
Despite scoring 15 goals in his first season, Beersheba was relegated at the end of the 1997/98 campaign and Maccabi Haifa pounced to purchase the rare talent.
After two excellent campaigns on a personal level, albeit disappointing ones for his club, Benayoun finally got the supporting cast he needed in the 2000/2001 season and he led Haifa to the first of two consecutive championships.
There was never any doubt Benayoun would play in Europe, but there were those who questioned if he'd succeed. His frail frame (1.73 meters, 62 kilograms) is anything but impressive and not everyone believed he could cope with the physical nature of continental soccer.
They were quickly proven wrong.
Benayoun moved to Spain's Racing de Santander in the summer of 2002 and improved with every season, ultimately scoring 21 goals in 101 appearances for the small La Liga club.
There is so much focus on Benayoun's talents on the field that his intelligence off it doesn't get the credit it deserves.
Benayoun's aptitude has meant he has managed his career to perfection, choosing the right times to move on and right places to move to.
Benayoun never allowed short-term frustration to alter the course of the career he envisioned for himself and he has reaped the rewards.
After three seasons at Santander he moved to English Premier League club West Ham United for Â£2.5 million and once more didn't disappoint, despite scoring just eight goals in 63 appearances.
Benayoun established himself at West Ham, helping the team to the 2006 FA Cup final, and seemed set to remain at the club for many years after being offered a long-term contract extension in the summer of 2007.
However, in July of that year, Liverpool came knocking, and despite offering a lower salary than West Ham, Benayoun knew this was an opportunity not to be missed.
West Ham was reluctant to release its star midfielder, but Benayoun was adamant he wanted to leave and a Â£5 million deal was completed.
After spending his entire career until this stage as the focal point in each of the sides he'd played in, Benayoun had to adjust to a completely new scenario at Liverpool.
He knew he would never be guaranteed a starting position, especially with Rafa Benitez as manager, but he nevertheless became an important part of the team in his first season with the club, making 48 appearances, including 27 in the starting lineup, and scoring 11 goals.
However, that proved to be no more than an appetizer to last season.
Despite an erratic start to the campaign and persistent rumors he may be leaving the club in the January transfer window, Benayoun experienced one of the best seasons ever by an Israeli player.
His 42 appearances, 26 of them as a starter, and nine goals are very impressive, but still fail to tell the true story of his contribution to the team.
Benayoun was one of Liverpool's best players in the second half of the season, scoring crucial goals in the Champions League and Premier League. His 82nd minute winner against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu in the last 16 of the Champions League in February of this year will go down as one of the most memorable strikes ever by an Israeli player.
In July, Benayoun was rewarded with a contract extension which will keep him at the Merseyside club until 2013, earning him in the region of Â£75,000 a week.
With the club underperforming, Benayoun has been one of Liverpool's rare rays of light this season and has proved himself as one of the team's most important players.
Benayoun has also been the Israel national team's undoubted star over the past 10 years, even with the side failing to reach a major tournament time and again despite his best efforts. With 77 caps and 19 goals currently to his name, Benayoun looks set to break the records for both appearances (94 Arik Benado) and goals (32 Mordechai Spiegler) in the coming decade.
Despite all of the above, I have yet to reach the most amazing part about Benayoun. As hard as you may look, you will likely not find a single person who will have a bad word to say about him. He has remained as down to earth and humble as he was before the fame and millions. He is not only a rare player, but also an exceptional human being and that pretty much says it all.
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