The Tragic Glory of Amir Tega

Why the player who scored Israel's winning goal could not really rejoice after the victory.

At 1 P.M. yesterday, the day after he scored the winning goal for the Israeli under-21 national team against France, Amir Tega returned to the empty stadium in Herzliya.

"I'm only now beginning to realize what we did," he says, reliving the historic goal that ensured Israel's qualification for the European U-21 Championship.

"My sister and two friends were sitting in the western stand," Tega recounts. "Aviram Bruchian was here and passed to Toto Tamuz. I called to Toto to pass it to me. The ball hit a French player and reached me. This is the exact spot from which I shot."

At this point he stops, pulling out a piece of grass and putting it in his pocket as a souvenir.

After scoring the goal, Tega did not know where to run to. While fireworks lit up Herzliya's sky, he stopped and raised his arms. "My brother saw me score the goal from the sky, I'm sure of it," he says.

At first Tega smiled. "I was happy for the crowd. It is not often that I sense a belonging to Israel... Do you know what it's like to make people happy?"

While his friends were climbing over one another, Tega felt that something was blocking his happiness. Two months ago, his 16-year-old brother, Avi, committed suicide. Two weeks later, the body of Avi's girlfriend was found in the same place.

Tega, a slender, pleasant chap of 21, immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia at the age of six, and grew up in the mobile homes of the Hatzrot Yosef trailer park.

He joined the players celebrating and jumping up and down in the locker room. "But it was pretense. I wanted to be glad, but something got in the way," he says.

His teammates went out drinking, but Tega took a quick shower and went home to Kiryat Ekron. "I only wanted to be with the family," he says. "I felt that all this joy was not real; but my brother's grave and my family's home - that's reality."

His family is the most important thing in Tega's life. Three years ago, he tattooed his parents' initials on his neck, surrounded by a heart "in gratitude for all they have done for me." His dream is to take them on a family roots trip to Ethiopia.

His father, Taganya, is a gardener at Kaplan Hospital. He gets up every day at 3:30 A.M. Yesterday, Taganya said people hugged him at work and thanked him.

"My son scored, not I," he told them.

Tega's mother, Laveta, has been unemployed since the birth of the couple's seventh daughter, Einav, three years ago. "It costs NIS 1,000 to send her to a day-care center, so she preferred to stay home," Tega says.

Since his brother's suicide, the family does not watch television at home. Yesterday, before the game, his mother's sister came by with a small television set. After Tega scored, the small set broke down.

Priot to August 9, there were seven brothers in the family. Uri, the eldest, is a university graduate; Roni is a soldier in an elite unit; Hanna serves in the Border Police. Avi used to have a permanent seat at Maccabi Netanya's home ground.

On Wednesday, August 9, Tega was told his brother was missing. For three days, they searched for him, until his body was found in one of the citrus groves near their home. After the funeral, Tega could not play for a month and refused to talk about the tragedy. "I prefer not to talk about it or mention it. When anyone does, I immediately break into tears. Outside, I behave normally, but at home things are very difficult."

The hardest times are Friday nights, before and after the Sabbath kiddush. "Suddenly someone says something about Avi and it all bursts out. There are moments in which I don't realize he's not alive. For example, I was used to doing the shopping, and shortly before reaching home, I'd call my mother and ask her to tell Avi to come down and help me carry the groceries. Last week, I called home after the shopping and as I opened my mouth, I realized what I was going to say. I stopped myself at the last moment and changed the subject."

The U-21 team's coach, Guy Levi, asked Tega to rejoin the squad before the game. He was thrown into the game in the 88th minute. "Don't play up front, don't go crazy," Levi instructed.

With his second touch of the ball, in the 93rd minute, Tega scored the winning goal.

His life story is the stuff champions are made of. He wanted to be a soccer player before ever playing in the team. He always played with older teams in Maccabi Netanya. He spent his childhood at ORT's boarding school in Netanya, and is aware of the discrimination against Ethiopians. "We are seen as modest, nice, quiet, harmless and useless. It drives me crazy," he says.

He was cursed by Netanya's football fans during the relegation season two years ago, until he took his place on the team.

But he is sure that these events have steeled him and realizes that despair is not a luxury he can afford. After running with him on Herzliya's lawn and looking at Avi's photograph in his car, one can understand why these players are called the "golden generation" and just how Israel's under 21 team managed to qualify for the European Championship.