With the start of the new Israeli soccer season just a couple of days away, here's an indisputable fact for you to ponder (assuming, of course, that I haven't overlooked a player or two ): During the past three months, from the moment the whistle blew to mark the end of the 2010/2011 season and the opening whistle of 2011/2012, no fewer than 17 players have left the Premier League seeking fame and fortune in foreign leagues. And here's another solid fact, which no one can argue with: This is the largest number of players that has ever left the Israeli league during one summer.
The pessimists will talk about how the Israeli league is in ruins, how there has been a mass exodus of players, and how this will inevitably lead to a drop in the quality of the soccer we see here every weekend. Israeli soccer, they will tell us, cannot afford to lose so many players over the course of a summer - especially when those players are the leading lights in the teams they have left. The vacuum they leave behind, some argue, will take a year or two to fill. And then they will go on to argue that the immediate upshot of all this is that the fans will stop buying tickets, since the clubs will only be able to offer them a poor replacement for the stars who have left. God help us if this is true.
Instead, I have decided to break the habit of a lifetime and focus on the cautiously optimistic vision of the season ahead, instead of succumbing to the all-too-easy addiction to apocalyptic predictions. I will, instead, focus on the pride I feel at the number of Israeli players deemed skillful enough to ply their trade overseas. If, for just a moment, you look through my rose-tinted glasses, you will see there are many European teams who are now queuing up to sign the oft-maligned Israeli soccer player. None of those who have relocated did so because they despaired of the state of Israeli soccer; rather, they left because they felt they had fulfilled their potential here, that the local league had given them a solid foundation to play elsewhere and to take on new challenges.
The Israeli soccer player - and I know that this may sound strange, delusional even - has become hot property. There are various explanations for the rise in value of the blue-and-white player. Some are flattering, others less so. The bottom line, however, is that Israeli soccer and Israeli soccer players continue to make progress. From a situation in which there was merely a trickle of Israeli stars making their way to foreign clubs - Mordechai Spiegler, Giora Spiegel, Eli Ohana, Eyal Berkovic, Haim Revivo, Yossi Benayoun and so on - we have become a production line capable of manufacturing an impressive number of exports every season. More importantly, there is no vacuum left in the Israeli league. There were weak seasons when people like Uri Malmilian, Moshe Sinai and Ronny Rosenthal played in Israel. If several scouts for European clubs have decided that Israeli soccer has something to offer, they probably know what they're talking about.
The situation is far from perfect, but it is just as far from the dire straits that pessimists claim it to be. More and more kids are joining local teams and dreaming of playing in the big time. They give their all on the pitch and work hard to become one of the lucky ones who turn professional. And you may be surprised to learn that the ideal they aspire to is not Lionel Messi; more often than not, it's Lior Refaelov, Barak Yitzhaki or any of the other top-class young Israeli players on the scene today. If you don't believe me, take in a soccer match between two school teams; you'll quickly understand what I've been talking about.
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