Just two or three years ago, Racing Santander was the most popular Spanish soccer team among Israeli fans - behind Real Madrid and Barcelona, of course. The reason was obvious: Santander was an Israeli colony, headed by Yossi Benayoun and Dudu Awat; in online polls on the club's Web site, the number of Israelis casting their vote for player of the year even propelled Ilan Bachar to the top of the list.
But despite the success of Benayoun, who was a first-team player during the whole of his three-year stint in Spain and scored 21 goals before progressing to the Premier League, Santander was a struggling side during its Israeli period.
In addition to Benayoun, the Israeli legion at Santander included Awat, who was the first-choice goalkeeper for Santander during his last two years with the team, and the less successful duo of Bachar and Omri Afek, who failed to make an impression on the Spanish league.
Since the Israeli contingent has left Santander - the last to do so was Awat, who moved on to Deportivo La Coruna in the summer of 2006 - Santander has, naturally, lost its appeal for Israelis. But it is not exactly suffering as a result. This season is the team's best since 1931, when it was runner-up in the Spanish league. After 31 rounds of matches, Racing is fifth and is fighting for a place in the Champions League. Who would have believed it?
Phil Ball, the Canadian-born educator and author, who became a soccer fan while growing up in England and who is now a respected commentator on Spanish soccer, wrote two months ago that Santander is the surprise package of the season. At the time, Santander was sixth in the standings, but Ball wrote that he found it hard to believe it would remain so high. In the meantime, the team is proving him wrong - just as it has proved all those who predicted that the best it could hope for this season was mid-table mediocrity.
Ahead of Sunday's game against his old team, Awat, whose new club, La Coruna, is currently struggling at the wrong end of the table, said he does not regret making the move. "I moved to a bigger team," insisted the former Israeli international 'keeper, "even if Racing Santander is currently in a much better position in the table."
But Santander, which tried to keep Awat on its books, is not shedding any tears over his departure. According to sports journalist Alfredo Matilla of the AS newspaper, "Awat was a popular figure at Santander and a capable goalkeeper. But just like he started out as a second-choice goalie, so his understudy became the first choice. Now Tonio has become an excellent goalie. Benayoun was also a popular and charming guy, but he did not fit in with the way Racing played soccer. No one can say that the team is missing him. The results speak for themselves."
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