Text size

After four years in Turkey, Pini Balili still hasn't given up on playing for a bigger team.

"My dream is and always has been to play for one of the big clubs in Turkey, or perhaps even in one of the senior European leagues," says the Sivasspor striker, who has also played for Istanbulspor and Kayserispor.

But in the meantime, even though he has in the past been linked with Fenerbahce, Balili's chances of joining one of the big Istanbul clubs are moving further away. The town of Sivas may be located in central Turkey, but it is hundreds of kilometers away from Istanbul, and soccer is not what the town is renowned for. Sivas' claim to fame is the Kangal sheep dog native to the region.

"People don't understand what it's like living in a place like this," Balili said in an interview with Haaretz. "Sivas is desolate; there are no cafes here, there are no bars and there are no restaurants. Nothing happens here at night."

Once every two weeks, Balili flies to Istanbul to meet up with his friends from Istanbulspor and charges his batteries ahead of another two weeks of boredom. But Sivas is not what will break Pini Balili - his problems lie further away in Israel. Balili split recently from his wife, who is in Israel with their son.

"The conditions here aren't what will break me," says Balili. "There are a lot of other things that could break me when I sit alone at night. The fact that I hardly get to see my son will break me long before anything else. I see him once every two months and I think about him all the time."

Balili spends most of his time, when he isn't training, in front of the computer, reading the Israeli papers on the net. "In Turkey I'm a star," says Balili, "I receive a lot of positive press and am considered a famous and in-demand player. But that is far from the case when it comes to the Israeli media. I am disappointed with the Israeli media. No one in Israel knows about Turkish soccer, because no one reports from here. Since Haim Revivo returned to Israel [after playing for Fenerbahce and Galatasaray] the Turkish league doesn't interest anyone. When Revivo was here t he Israeli media followed the Turkish league, but they seem to have decided to ignore me."

But it isn't only the media that is ignoring Balili. National team coach Dror Kashtan has also ignored his former Hapoel Tel Aviv protege since taking over from Avraham Grant.

"There is only one person you should ask why I'm not on the national team, and that is the coach," says Balili. I can only say that I'm disappointed, that it hurts, that I want to be on the team and that I'm good enough to be on it, but there's a coach. He hasn't even called me. Kashtan has had a big part in my career; he directed me and he has a part in my success. But even though I have scored three goals so far this season, even though I am playing in a top league and even though I am in top shape, I still think he has the right to decide who plays on the national team."

Balili isn't sorry about the column he wrote for the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth last year, in which he lashed out at Grant. "There is no connection between what I wrote then and the fact that I haven't been called up by Kashtan. No one at the IFA (Israel Football Association) has said I am suspended."

Sources close to Kashtan say the decision not to call up Balili is purely professional.

Sivasspor's assistant coach Atash Karabaroglu says he cannot figure how Kashtan could leave Balili out of his side. "I just don't understand how the Israel coach can allow himself to leave a player like Balili out of his squad," says Karabaroglu.

Balili's Turkish agent Matin Stamati says Balili's absence from the national team is damaging his career prospects. "The fact that he isn't playing for Israel could affect our options. Representatives of Crystal Palace have seen him. We are in contacts with them about trials at the end of the season.

"Balili's contract with Sivasspor expires at the end of the season, so this season determines whether he will move on to a big club or stay here. If Fenerbahce, which changes coaches all the time, sticks with Zico, then Balili has a good chance of signing there."

Stamati says Balili has changed since he first came to Turkey. "He has matured; he is more self-aware and he doesn't throw his money around. Balili sends everything to his lawyer Shahar Ben Ami, who is making sure that he has a future, while he makes sure to focus on soccer."

Balili has gotten off to an excellent start with Savisspor this season. He has scored three goals in eight games, and the club is 12th in the standings.

"This is my best season in Turkey," says Balili. "The club president told me last week that he wants to offer me a two-year contract extension, but I'm in no hurry because I want to get ahead. There are big teams that want me, including Fenerbahce. Fenerbahce might release one of its foreign players during the season, and then it would take me. In the meantime things are good for me here; I'm a key player."

One of those responsible for Balili's improvement has been Sivasspor coach Karol Pecze. Karabaroglu says that the Czech, who arrived at the club at the beginning of the season, has given Balili the peace of mind he lacked last season.

"We are very happy with Balili this season," says Karabaroglu. "He has made enormous progress. Last season Balili didn't suit Werner Lorant's style of play. Lorant played a disciplined and tactical game and wanted the players to be like robots. Balili isn't the kind of player who should be limited. Last season he played on the left, but he is a scorer and this season he is being allowed to do what he knows best."

What could really turn Balili's career around though is Turkish citizenship. Sivasspor has recently put in an application for Balili and if that is authorized, he will no longer be considered a foreign player and will become a far more attractive prospect.

"Balili isn't likely to move to one of the big Turkish clubs," says sports writer Mehmmet Yaziki, "but if he gets Turkish citizenship, that could open the doors to a move to Fenerbahce."