Soccer / Israelis Abroad / Belgian Coach: We Polish Imported Rough Diamonds

At a time when Israelis are not exactly popular abroad, the one market where they remain in demand is the Belgian soccer league. Just ask Georges Leekens, the head coach of Sporting Lokeren, who just brought in Yoav Ziv from Beitar Jerusalem to make an Israeli threesome in his Juniper League club.

"The presence of three Israeli national team players in the club is a blessing for us," Leekens said in an interview with Haaretz. "The more national team players the better: for our image, advertising, everything. And for quality, as well."

Lokeren, which is in seventh place in the Belgian premier league, seems to know exactly what it got in Ziv during the recent transfer window. Leekens noted that Ziv was recommended by Dudu Dahan, the manager of Hakoah Ramat Gan, who had earlier recommended Omer Golan. Golan had played the previous seven seasons with Maccabi Petah Tikva.

The coach does not intend to give Ziv the leeway to move up on offense, as Beitar coach Reuven Atar did. "I see it as understood from the start that a defensive player need not run around, but rather first and foremost must fulfill his original task - to defend," Leekens said. "But it's too early to talk - I need to see the player in action."

Leekens knows his team is a whistle stop for the Israelis. "We're a small, quiet, nice country," he said. "It's easy to make the next step of one's career here, perhaps toward the [German] Bundesliga or the [English] Premier League. Golan dreams about the Premier League. He thinks it's within his grasp, but he has to work harder."

The Belgian coach has more reservations about Avi Strool, the third Israeli member of his team. "He needs to be more realistic. He fits well into our defense, but injuries aren't helping, and sometimes he sits on the bench."

The chance to be bigger fish in a smaller pond is not only good for the players, Leekens said, but also good for Israel. "I can promise your national coach, Dror Kashtan, that from Lokeren he'll get better and more mature players," he pledged.

"Several Israelis improved their ability to the point where they were released only for huge sums," Leekens continued. "Elyaniv Barda is the best example. Within a relatively short period he turned into Genk's key player, maybe even the best one there." Leekens said he is not surprised that Genk is now demanding four million euros for him.

Last month, Paok Thessaloniki reportedly expressed interest in paying half a million euros to have Golan play with the Greek team through season's end, but Lokeren's management refused outright. "You don't sell diamonds so quickly," explained the coach.

If Golan goes, Leekens stressed, "it will be a really huge sum, not peanuts." He added that if Golan works hard, making a bigger league will be possible. "We won't stand in his way," Leekens promised.

"Among the Israelis, it looks to me like Golan and Barda are the most ready to move on," he commented. "And to think that in the beginning, we were criticized for the seemingly ridiculous sum we paid for Golan. Now, everyone is happy with him."