The Last Word: An exceptional year for Israeli sportsmen, if not for Israeli teams

The Last Word An except

Back in December 2007 I was looking forward to the upcoming 12 months with deep anticipation. It was an Olympic year and we at the Post were sure it was going to be a time of great achievement for Israeli athletes on one of the greatest sports stages of them all. The Beijing Games, however, proved to be somewhat of a failure for Team Israel. From Ram and Erlich to Gal and Kliger, Israel's medal hopes came up short, and it wasn't until the final few days that Shahar Zubari lifted national spirits when he won a bronze in the windsurfing. Consequently, last year's Israeli Sports Personality of the Year Award nominations were quite different to what had been expected at the start of the year. Only one regular Olympic athlete was included in the shortlist and the top spot was taken by Inbal Pezaro - an impressive Paralympic swimmer by all accounts, but far from a world renowned name. So, it would be fair to say that expectations were low for 2009. If Israelis couldn't shine in an Olympic year what hope did we have for a period when no major international tournaments were being held. How wrong we were. While few Israeli teams managed to make it to the top, the past year has been one of the best for a long time for individuals. As such, the task of cutting the list of nominations for this year's Israeli Sports Personality of the Year Award down to a manageable size was not an easy one. The seven that made it truly are impressive athletes, but there are many that came close but were eventually eliminated, an illustration of the high quality of Israelis in world sports at this moment. Andy Ram may have been included, but, after deliberations, we decided that Israel's top singles players - Dudi Sela and Shahar Pe'er - were not. This was an issue of consistency. Sela and Pe'er had excellent months, most notably the man from Kiryat Shmona's stunning performances at Wimbledon, but they couldn't hold that focus for the entire year. Here in Israel there were a number of personalities who deserve a mention but didn't make it to the final list. The local basketball league didn't produce classic teams, but there was tension and excitement. The two teams that made the final, Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Tel Aviv, were full of great personalities, but two stood out. Tel Aviv coach Pini Gershon was called in to take over team affairs in November 2008 after Effi Birenboim was fired. The veteran coach was unable to make an impact on the Euroleague, but pulled the team together enough to make sure it won the final against Haifa. The team from the North had come from nearly nowhere to the final. This was as much down to the tenacity and personality of owner Jeffrey Rosen as the players and coach Avi Ashkenazi. Rosen, who bought the club in July 2007, injected a load of flamboyance and style into the side from the north, which brought the fans back to the Romema Arena and drove the team into the State Cup final as well as the Final Four. Another non-playing sporting personality who had a lasting impact in 2009 was Brazilian-born businessman Guma Aguiar. Six months ago few Israeli sports fans had heard of the 32-year-old energy mogul. But when he made a bid to buy Betar Jerusalem and ended up pumping $4 million into the club before sponsoring Hapoel Jerusalem basketball club to a tune of $1.5m. his name was on everybody's lips. Aguiar's passionate attitude has captured the imagination of many a sports analyst and he could well be around for a long time to come. Olympic star Zubari was extremely close to making it on the shortlist, as was fellow windsurfer Nimrod Mashiah. Mashiah won silver at the windsurfing worlds while Zubari won gold at the European Championships in Tel Aviv, but neither made a last impact. Finally, one large group of athletes cast a major positive light on 2009. Few of them will win any awards for sporting excellence, but the Jewish sportsmen and women from around the world who participated in this summer's Maccabiah Games illustrated the very essence of the sporting spirit. The Games were chock full of stories and personalities and made a lasting impression on this sports department. They made up for the disappointment of the year, Maccabi Haifa's Champions League failure. The local sports world was filled with enthusiasm when Haifa made it through to the biggest club soccer tournament in the world, for the first time in seven years. After being forced to host its games in Cyprus in 2002, owner Jacob Shahar and his team were finally getting the chance to play on greatest stage of all and host giants such as Bayern Munich and Juventus in Israel. Unfortunately, they blew it. Haifa may have played well and only lost by a single goal in all of the six matches aside from its opener against Bayern. But the fact that it became the first team in the 18-year-history of the competition to end the group stage goalless and pointless was an embarassment. The national tennis team's exploits in the Davis Cup were one of the highlights of the year, but on the whole Israeli teams failed to show the world how good they can be. Israel's apalling showing in the World Cup qualifiers will always go down as one of the great missed opportunities in the history of the IFA, and Yossi Benayoun's contrasting performances for his country and Liverpool are a stark example of the differing fortunes of Israeli athletes in 2009.