The World Is Their Oyster

Israeli athletes have graced European teams for some time, but the growing globalization of sport also has its downside

The Maccabiah is an opportune time to look not only at the Jewish athletes from abroad who are in Israel for the games and who may 'make aliyah' - immigrate to Israel - but also at the other side of the equation: Israeli athletes who play abroad. Of course, the differences are clear. The Israelis who go abroad seek to improve their economic and professional status and will almost always return home after a short time - usually after a few years of a successful career, and possibly because they miss the country (not necessarily for patriotic reasons).

Contrary to what most people think, local soccer stars have have been playing abroad for a long time, almost 50 years. True, in the early 1950s Shiye Glazer turned down an offer to play for the Turkish club Galatasaray (and received a share in the Egged bus cooperative to keep him at home), but others have been drawn to foreign pastures. Mutzi Leon, Mordechai Lubetsky and others played in a South African soccer league in the 1960s, and Shlomo Levy played in Canada. The Israelis weren't good enough for Europe, but good money could also be found in less well-known leagues, especially during the period when soccer in Israel was totally nonprofessional and even the best players worked as bus drivers (which, at the time, was a high-status profession) or in other jobs.

Following creation of the Israeli national team and its World Cup debut in Mexico in 1970, and thanks to the emergence of a talented generation of players, European clubs began to acquire Israelis in the '70s. Shmulik Rosenthal played for the superb German team of that era, Borussia Moenchengladbach; Mordechai Spiegler and Giora Spiegel starred in the French league (Saint Germain, Lyon, Strasbourg); and Spiegler also played for the New York Cosmos with Pele and Franz Beckenbauer. But the big breakthrough was the transfer of Avi Cohen in 1979 to Liverpool, at that time perhaps the best soccer team in the world. Just making it into the English league was an achievement, and it was amazing to be acquired by Liverpool, the European champs. Players such as Yaacov Cohen and Moshe Griani also made it into the English league, while Vicky Peretz played in France.

In the mid-1980s the Belgian period began. With the aid of well-connected Israeli-Belgian agents, Belgium became a hothouse for top Israeli talent, such as Eli Ohana, who played for KV Mechelen and helped them win the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup. Ronny Rosenthal, Shalom Tikva and others also did well in Belgium and indeed across the Continent. Ohana ended up in Portugal, Tikva wandered across Europe and Rosenthal went to Liverpool in 1990 and led the team to its last championship in sensational style, scoring eight goals within a few months.

Since Israel's co-option into European soccer in 1992, its homegrown players have become even more familiar on the Continent; indeed, dozens have played in various European leagues over the past two decades. The big names include Eyal Berkovic, who played for several teams in Britain; Haim Revivo, who was a big success on the Spanish team Celta Vigo and in Turkey; Tal Banin, the first Israeli to play in Italy; goalkeeper Bonny Ginzburg, who played with the Glasgow Rangers; as well as David Pizanti, Itzik Zohar, Alon Hazan and others.

Worrying phenomenon

Nowadays, numerous Israeli players can be found in Europe thanks to globalization, their European passports and the fact that citizenship restrictions have been eased in certain countries to allow people to play soccer there. Cases in point are Yossi Benayoun (Liverpool), Tal Ben Haim (Sunderland), Tamir Cohen (Bolton), Dudu Awat (Mallorca), Pini Balili (Sivasspor) and, in Belgium, Elyaniv Barda, Avi Strool, Omer Golan, Yoav Ziv and so on.

But the globalization of soccer and the low level of training in Israel have produced a new and perhaps worrying phenomenon: Outstanding players are leaving at a very early age - between 12 and 14 - to play at European teams' academies. Whether it's Gai Assulin in Barcelona or Eli Zizov in Bulgaria, these are players who have not just gone abroad for a few years to make money: They consider themselves Israelis, but have never played here. Furthermore, the fact that Guy Assulin is threatening to play for the Spanish national team after he receives Spanish citizenship - rather than for Israel, if it means doing army service - is infuriating.

But it's not only Israeli soccer players who go abroad: Just a few weeks we heard that basketball player Omri Casspi will become the first Israeli to play in the NBA. Quite a few have also done well previously on college teams (notably Nadav Henefeld and Doron Sheffer), while others have starred in Europe, such as Oded Katash and, currently, Yotam Halperin. Female Israeli basketball players are also making a name for themselves abroad, including Shay Doron, who played in the WNBA before returning to Europe, and Liron Cohen, who played on a few European teams. In handball, Idan Maimon played in Germany in the past, and Avishay Smoler is doing so at present.

As a generalization, it can be said that playing abroad draws Israeli athletes closer to the Jewish world. If there is a large community of Israeli expats where the athlete is playing, he will tend to mingle with them and pursue an 'Israeli' way of life, but if there are only a few Israelis, he will often forge a connection with the local Jewish community. For example, Tamir Cohen (son of Avi Cohen), who plays soccer for Bolton, related that the Jewish community in the Bolton/Manchester area helped him integrate, and he has spent holidays - both Jewish and Israeli (i.e., Independence Day) - with its members. Even Roberto Colautti, a non-Jewish, naturalized Israeli striker who plays for Borussia Moenchengladbach, married to an Israeli, sought out the local Jewish community: Undoubtedly under his wife's influence, he celebrated last Passover with the Jewish community of Cologne.