The Friday Interview: How a year in Colorado inspired Israel's top defender

Dedi Ben-Dayan misses the tranquility of life in Major League Soccer since moving to Maccabi Netanya.

dedi ben-dayan 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy photo)
dedi ben-dayan 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
It's been three years since Dedi Ben-Dayan became the first Israeli to play Major League Soccer in the United States, and the former Hapoel Petah Tikva player now has fond memories of the MLS. When he returned to Israel in the summer of 2006 and signed for Maccabi Netanya, the left sided defender was quoted by one Israeli sports Web site as saying that he didn't feel he had improved as a player in the two seasons he spent at the Colorado Rapids in the MLS's Western Conference, even though he had performed well, scoring seven goals in 25 appearances. A year and a half down the line, however, the 29-year-old Ben-Dayan looks back on his time in America as one of the best experiences of a career which has spanned just over a decade. Ben-Dayan was one of Israel's most promising youngsters when he made his first team debut at Maccabi Tel Aviv in 1997. But by 2005 he was playing for a soon-to-be relegated Hapoel Beersheba team and looking for a change. "For me it was the best time to move and Colorado was the best team to move to. I needed some time for myself and in the States, unlike in Israel, players have their space. No one bothers you too much," he tells The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. "I miss it. Because over there you feel free and play without any distractions from outside." After playing for five clubs in Israel as well as Colorado Ben-Dayan admits he has matured into a well-rounded player, and person, and attributes much of that change to his time playing for Uruguayan coach Fernando Clavijo at INVESCO Field. Ben-Dayan recalls how, as an up and coming youngster at Tel Aviv, where he spent the first six years of his career, he constantly felt the pressure created by the Israel media, something that was far less apparent in Colorado. "Nowadays I don't care about what people say but when I was in Maccabi Tel Aviv at the age of 22 they [the media] would write stupid things about everyone and when I was young I wasn't ready for it," he says. "I think I improved in my mind [in Colorado] because I got a different perspective of the game," Ben-Dayan recalls. "Over there you just come and be whatever you are on the pitch. You come and do your best and then you say to yourself 'Ok, if I lose, I lose, if I win it's ok'." This is not to say that there is no pressure, media focus, or large support in American soccer. The sport is ever growing in the US and, while it is not at all ready to challenge the major sports of baseball, NFL football and NHL hockey, the crowds at Rapids home games were often much larger than those at Netanya's "The Box" stadium. Colorado moved to a new stadium at the start of the 2008 season and regularly attracts more than 15,000 supporters. There's little doubt now that the American experience helped Ben-Dayan. Since moving to Netanya he has become one of the outstanding defenders in the country and the first choice left back in Dror Kashtan's national team. Netanya, a once great club in the history of Israeli soccer, is returning to what its supporters see as its rightful place in the upper echelons of the Israeli Premier League. In 2006 German-Jewish businessman Daniel Jammer bought the club and it has since gone from strength to strength, finishing in second place in the league last season and currently in joint second position heading into this weekend's Pessah break. Ben-Dayan has been an integral member of Reuven Atar's team, and says he benefited from the attacking mentality the coach has encouraged, giving players the freedom to push forward when the time seems right. "He was a very good player, a big, big star and I think he brought his qualities to the team, giving the inspiration to the offense to play free as he played when he was a player," Ben-Dayan says of Atar. "He has let the young players have the opportunity and, in turn, they have given back." We now know Atar will not be at Netanya at the start of the season. Jammer's forward-thinking attitude has led him to bring in former Germany international Lothar Matthaus as coach, a move which is likely to bring large-scale changes at the club over the summer. Ben-Dayan dismisses rumors that he is planning a return to Maccabi Tel Aviv once the season ends, and speaks positively about the Matthaus move while admitting it was harsh on Atar. "I think it was not fair," he says, remembering how Atar reacted after the announcement was made last weekend. "Reuven was quiet and acted normal as always, but I think inside he was disappointed because he took the team to second place in the league and perhaps next season we will play in Europe again. I didn't discuss it with him because it is not my job to talk with him about it. I don't need to tell Reuven he is doing incredibly - he knows it. "But I am not the boss and I'm not puting my own money into the club," he notes. "Lothar Matthaus is a big name in European soccer, so [by playing under him] I can learn more about the game." Ben-Dayan says that it is a "privilege" to play at Maccabi, which he describes as "a small team with a big heart" "You feel at home there, like it is one family," he says. "I think I have been very lucky to have been at Netanya for the past two years." While Ben-Dayan is now seen as one of the more accomplished defenders in Israel, he began his career in midfield and it was former Maccabi Tel Aviv and current Chelsea coach Avraham Grant who decided to place him in a defensive role. "You know, when Avraham Grant tells you to play in a certain position you don't argue," he jokes. "I first started playing at left back in 1999 because Avraham brought two defenders into the team and moved me there." Even though he has managed to take Chelsea into the Champions League semifinals and second place in the league, questions are still being asked about Grants abilities. "He has a lot of pressure but I think he knows how to deal with it," Ben-Dayan says of his former coach at Tel Aviv and on the national team.