Soccer / Premier League

Be’er Sheva’s Rising Star From the North

Teammates joke about him imitating Ronaldo on free kick, but opposition knows it has to take Siraj Nassar seriously.

During his first four years at Hapoel Be'er Sheva, Siraj Nassar heard how coach after coach got chewed out for including him in the lineup. The fans, who didn't love the faith that his coaches were putting in the acquisition from Maccabi Kafr Kana at the expense of home-grown players, made their case to Guy Azouri, who had signed him; to Guy Levy during the season the team was promoted to the Premier League; and to Nir Klinger.

For most of them, Nassar did not meet their level of expectations. Elisha Levy, the current head coach, also heard protests last season from the fans about including him, but he expressed admiration for the midfielder. The coach told owner Alona Barkat that Nassar, from the northern Israel town of Tur'an, had great potential.

Barkat listened and acted accordingly. Last season, when she saw the clock ticking on Nassar's contract, set to expire in the summer of 2014, she demanded he sign a new contract. The player refused. He wanted to finish the contract, receive his signing rights, and choose his future himself.

The support and compliments he received from soccer officials and agents had convinced him that he could play for a big team or win a lucrative contract in Belgium or Cyprus. While Barkat and CEO Asi Rahamim pressured him to extend his contract in the Negev capital, Nassar found himself training alone and wasn't included in the team's starting 11. Club policy, Elisha Levy calls this.

It was also made plain as day to the player that he would not be released before the expiration of his contract. From the sidelines, he saw his teammates fighting against relegation and taking abuse from spectators. In the end, the pressure did its job. Barkat sweetened her offer, and Nassar signed for three years.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's already history and everything is behind us," says coach Levy. "Now we are benefiting from his performance, and he is very happy with the club."

Be'er Sheva supporters also did a 180 with Nassar. It happened in the last weekend of games the previous season, when he was one of the game's most valuable players in Netanya and scored a beautiful goal in the 3-0 victory, which kept Hapoel Be'er Sheva in the Premier League. That very same day, he made the transformation from just another acquisition to a player beloved in the stands.

During the summer, Levy had the time to rebuild the team. "I never considered giving up on him for even a moment," says the coach about Nassar. "With every acquisition we brought in, he had and has a very important role in the system. He is a wing player, who plays both on the right and left sides, and he is a starter regardless of the leading players we brought in. He has many qualities, and he doesn't surprise me this season."

Locker room serenade in Arabic

Levy held many personal talks with Nassar over the summer. He promised to improve the player's performance and presented Nassar with a challenge: to mature as a player and as a person. He told Nassar he had to make the leap because he had everything necessary to be a starting player in the coming season and a key player in Israeli soccer.

Nassar justified Levy's call during the first three games of the regular season. Playing with team captain Elyaniv Barda, Maor Buzaglo, Kobi Dajani and the new foreign teammates, Nassar has stood out with three goals. Last night, he started in a home game against Bnei Yehuda.

"I’m in good shape," he says. "The goals are less important to me. The main thing is the team winning. I’m not concerned with being the league's leading scorer. Hapoel Be'er Sheva's success is most important."

Family is also important to him, all the more so since his move south distanced him from home. In the match against Hapoel Acre, Nassar wore a shirt bearing a dedication to his father.

"I have to score a goal so I can dedicate it to my father," Nassar told his teammates, one of them recalls. "The family really misses me. It's hard for them that I am so far away." When he found the back of the net with an inspired kick, he rushed toward the camera and lifted his jersey so his family could see the dedication.

Meanwhile, he’s enjoying himself in Be'er Sheva. When he recently marked his 23rd birthday, his teammates prepared a surprise for him: They learned a song in Arabic, with Barda conducting, and celebrated him in the locker room.

At other times, they laugh with him at the tradition he created for himself in preparing to make a free kick. His model is Cristiano Ronaldo. Nassar recalls that for a long time he watched clips of the Portuguese star, watched every movement closely, and learned to imitate him. He already has on his resume a number of Ronaldo-style goals from free kicks.

Meanwhile, Nassar will cope with problems very far from the limelight of Madrid. If until now coaches in the Premier League planned how to stop Barda and Buzaglo, another name at Be'er Sheva has joined the list. The relatively anonymous midfielder, who dreams of being called up to the national team, can expect life to get harder on the pitch from here on out.

"Nassar has made a lot of progress this season," says coach Levy. “He has all the right stuff to be a player at the highest level. He is quick, solid on the mechanics and has a strong kicking leg. He simply needs to make the switch, exactly like the way Maor Melikson did at Hapoel Be'er Sheva, to be a great player. He has talent. Now he needs maturity. Over time, the combination of maturity, character and talent will turn him into an impact player in Israeli soccer."

Sharon Bukov