Israeli Soccer Star Challenging Europe's Best

Having catapulted from the bench of his local F.C. Ashdod to the starting lineup of storied Scottish club Celtic, Nir Biton takes a moment to reflect.

Sharon Bokov

At a time when Israeli soccer players are having a hard time getting playing time for the biggest clubs in Europe, 22-year-old Nir Biton is making a name for himself in Scotland playing for legendary club Celtic.

Biton, born and raised in the southern Israeli port city of Ashdod, made his professional debut with F.C. Ashdod on April 25, 2009, against one of the biggest and most popular clubs in Israel, Beitar Jerusalem. Biton went on to become a regular starter and decisive player in the Ashdod midfield until Scottish champions Celtic signed the Israeli national team player on August 30, 2013.

Although several Israeli soccer players have made the transition from Israeli clubs to European ones, most of them departed from the top clubs in Israel, Maccabi Haifa, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Tel Aviv, not from small clubs like F.C. Ashdod.

“When it comes to tradition and fans, it’s not one of the biggest clubs in Israel, so moving to Celtic was very special for me,” Nir Biton told Haaretz in a phone interview from Scotland. “Going from playing in a stadium of 8,000 to getting to a club that plays in the Champions League every year and fights for a championship every year is what every player in Israel dreams of.”

Biton made his debut for Celtic in the Champions’ League group stage — the middle of Europe’s most prestigious tournament — against Italian powerhouse A.C. Milan on September 18, 2013.

“It’s amazing to think that one week, I am playing versus a club like Ramat HaSharon, and then less than a few months, later I am playing against A.C. Milan in San Siro [A.C. Milan’s home stadium],” Biton said. “ It’s hard to explain in words the feeling when you find yourself on the pitch for warm-ups. You feel like you are living a dream, but then you realize you are playing football, and you have to snap out of it and do everything you can to help your club.”

After a successful start to the season, Biton found himself starting in the midfield for Celtic and becoming a fan favorite.

A former Israeli soccer scout told Haaretz, “Biton’s leadership and vision on the pitch make him a very valuable player. These two parameters allow him to be the game manager and to be a great player for years to come.”

Although it was first difficult for Biton to adjust to Scottish life, he says he has all the support he needs to be happy.

“I have met a lot of Israelis and Jews who are very special, and I also have [Israeli Arab teammate] Beram Kayal here with me which is great. Although sometimes it’s hard to understand the Scottish accent, everything is okay, and I am figuring it out. At the end of the day, I came to play football, and I came to do what I love,” Biton said. “I really am enjoying my time here and am very happy here. I am learning a lot from veterans and the coaching staff; there is a lot to learn. I signed a contract for four years, and I am not in a rush to get anywhere. My goal is just to improve.”

On March 5, 2014, while representing the Israel National Football Team in a friendly match against Slovakia, Biton suffered a serious groin injury on the pitch and has been out ever since.

Despite the injury, Biton is staying positive and focused on helping Celtic next year.