Soccer / Premier League / Aging Maccabi Haifa Star Boccoli Seeks That Sweet Spot on the Field

Gustavo Boccoli's legs have been taking a beating this season. Just ask the person sitting at the back of the stands and incessantly compiling statistics on Maccabi Haifa players. Boccoli is leading in three categories: lost possession, accurate passes and the number of fouls committed against him by opponents.

It's not without reason that the Brazilian leads the latter category: Haifa opponents seemed to have marked Boccoli as a way to cripple Haifa's offense. "Coaches are telling players to harass and annoy me, to tackle me strongly only to get me out of focus," Boccoli complained to teammates.

At the end of the club's first match against Bnei Sakhnin, he was visibly upset. "His body was covered with bruises," a club official recalled. "They tore him apart and made him lose concentration." During that match, Boccoli lashed out at referees he claimed had ignored fouls.

Haifa officials often tell Boccoli to keep his cool, but nothing helps. Though he may not be the only reason for Haifa's poor form this year, Boccoli is still a good example of what the club has been through.

"At first, I used to get very annoyed and lose my calm on the pitch." Boccoli said. "But now I get angry less and understand that it doesn't help me or the team."

But perhaps it's all a question of positioning. Last season Boccoli was diverted to the center of the field and has since failed to repeat his performance from 2006 when he scored 12 times and had nine assists.

"I do a lot more defense now," he said. "It's not that I am going to waste as a defensive midfielder and it's not just me whose performance has been poor, it's the entire team. I give everything to the team, but it's not an individual sport like tennis. I'll improve when everyone else does."

With the ousting of Xavier Dirsau in the summer, Boccoli was moved to center midfield from the right flank. Coach Roni Levi prepared his player for his new role and spoke to him about how to play the position. Boccoli was shown videos for hours of central midfielders from around the world. He humbly accepted his fate and tried his best to adapt, but not with great success.

"Enter the penalty area from the center, not the flanks," Haifa's coaches repeatedly told him. Despite their requests, Boccoli still drifts to the right wing, Haifa officials said.

"Boccoli's problem is that he does what he is told," a player said. "Even if they told him to stand in goal he would do it. Obviously, he does not feel comfortable in the position and is not able to bring his offensive capabilities to bear. He's too busy running after the other team's players to think about offense."

Boccoli's defensive form, on the other hand, is part of the reason Haifa has conceded only 16 goals this season. Teammates commend his physical ability and constant running that have earned him the nickname "the energizer." On the other hand, his steals do no good if he immediately loses the ball. "When he loses the ball, and that happens a lot, it becomes critical," a Haifa official said.

Boccoli is set to play his fifth season at Haifa next year and says he wants to end his career at the club. Coach Levi, who recognized the player's deteriorating confidence, awarded him the penalty kick against Beitar Jerusalem a few weeks ago.

But when Boccoli missed the shot, it undermined his confidence even more. "He took it hard and needed a few days to get over it," a Haifa player said. Many expect 30-year-old Boccoli to return to his beloved position on the right flank in Haifa's match against Beitar Jerusalem tomorrow.

But it may not change a thing. In the end, Boccoli's form may not be because of his positioning, but because of his age.