The Last Word: Barak Itzhaki's lack of professionalism should not be accepted

Scenes as ex-Betar player returned illustrate attitude prevalent among too many Israeli sportsmen.

jeremy last better pic (photo credit: Courtesy)
jeremy last better pic
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The scenes at Ben-Gurion airport on Sunday when former Betar Jerusalem striker Barak Itzhaki returned to Israel were extremely embarrassing, and illustrated a ridiculous attitude that is prevalent among far too many Israeli sportsmen. Itzhaki was transferred from Betar to top-flight Belgian team KRC Genk only six months ago in what appeared to be the perfect move for the Israel international. But on Sunday he was welcomed home by hundreds of exuberant Jerusalem supporters who sang his praises, literally, and carried the 24-year-old on their shoulders. Not only did Itzhaki enjoy the attention, but seated on the shoulders of one fan he led the rest of the throng in a Betar chant, shouting at the top of his lungs about how he swears that he loves Betar and thinks about them every minute of the day wherever he is. For the uninformed this must have seemed a little strange. Why was an ex-Betar player acting as if he still played for the club he left in January? The answer underlines a level of unprofessionalism that quite simply should not be accepted. When he made the move abroad to to play a far higher level of European soccer than he had been used to, instead of grabbing the opportunity with both hands Itzhaki quickly began complaining that he felt homesick. Now, despite Genk making every effort to help him feel comfortable in Belgium, he has decided to quit Europe and return to Betar, causing all manner of financial complications on top of the difficulties it will cause Genk. At press time the move had yet to be completed but it was expected to be within the next few days. It was the most childish of decisions, a reversal which has tarnished the image of Israeli soccer players abroad, especially in the Belgian top division where five Israelis played last season. Itzhaki is not a child. He is at the peak of his career and should never have quit so quickly, however difficult the situation was for him in Genk. The man is supposed to be a professional, but acted in a way which makes him look like a crybaby. Sure, it may have been a little lonely for him in Belgium, but he knew what he was getting himself into when he pushed and pushed for the move for over a year before it came to fruition. And he was even lucky enough to have another Israeli, Elyaniv Barda, playing in the same team. Itzhaki is a great forward who has bags of potential and the move to Belgium could well have led to transfers to even bigger clubs, just as with Yossi Benayoun when he moved from Spain to London in 2005 and even Ronnie Rosenthal when he moved to Liverpool from Standard Liege in 1990. Now, assuming the move to Jerusalem goes through, unless he changes his attitude completely and performs exceptionally well in Israel, it's unlikely any other team in Europe will give Itzhaki this chance again. It is not the first time this has happened. Yaniv Katan managed only half a season at West Ham United before in 2006 quitting Europe and returning to Maccabi Haifa. And back in 1988 Moshe Sinai played only seven games at Belgian side Beveran after joining in the middle of the season before going back to Israel in the summer. Betar has welcomed the return with open arms, knowing Itzhaki could prove crucial to the Israeli champion's Champions League qualification hopes. In his five years at Betar, Itzhaki was one of the club's finest strikers and one thing the team needs is a goal poacher. This was evident on Wednesday when Jerusalem drew 0-0 with French club Sochaux in the second of its preseason friendlies in Switzerland. Toto Tamuz, Sebastian Abreu and Amit Ben-Shushan all had chances, but none could put the ball in the back of the net when it came down to it. Itzhaki scored for Betar this time last season in the Champions League qualifier loss to FC Copenhagen and the team's management will hope he can do the same against Wisla Krakow this time around. But the man who scored three goals in 13 appearances for Genk should think carefully about the implications of a move back to Israel before he signs on the dotted line.