Soccer / Sweet and Sour

Salim Toama, Hapoel Tel Aviv's beloved hero and winning goal scorer in Wednesday's State Cup final, says when he was abroad he missed Israel, racism and all

This is quite a victory for you, considering how you started the season.

"That's true. I'm so glad I returned to Hapoel Tel Aviv, and despite not playing that much this season, I'm happy that people always remember what happened in the end, and the end was so sweet. I was lucky to score the goal that gave us the cup, the goal that made the fans so happy. It's a great feeling."

Nir Kafri

Is there such a big difference between your form in the begining of the season and your form now?

"I really don't think so. You know, here in Israel people always say that you're finished when you're over 30, that you're old and useless. That's what happened this season, people were saying all sorts of things, 'he's washed out, he's lost it,' but I never really got a chance to prove myself. I played 20-odd minutes here and there, occasionally starting, but didn't get a chance to play 10 consecutive games, which is the only way to really find out what I can do. I came back to Hapoel because this is my home. I love the fans, so I really didn't have a problem. It's true that I hoped to play more, but that's fine with me, because in the end I proved that I still know a thing or two about the game."

Where's your ego? How come you weren't hurt when you found yourself on the bench game after game?

"I love the club, I really do. If I really wanted to play every game I would have gone to another club. But I'm a Hapoel player through and through. When I was abroad and didn't make the starting 11 I would get angry and frustrated, but that can't happen to me when I'm here, because when the club succeeds I'm happy. I've always said that it really doesn't matter how much I play as long as we get good results."

How did the tension between the owners affect the players and the team spirit?

"I don't really think it affected the players. The team spirit is the best I've ever known at the club, It's been a long time since I enjoyed coming to work as I do now. It's really fun - I'm happy and I'm enjoying every minute at the club. It's true that we didn't win the league, but that has more to do with our poor form in the last month than the problems between the owners."

When you returned you said you really missed the fans. They missed you too.

"I've always had a special connection with the fans in the stands, and it's really great that they always supported me from the moment I broke into the team 11 years ago. I feel it every time I get on the pitch, and I'm really pleased I made them so happy with the cup. I'm moved every time they sing my song."

On the other hand you have the rival fans with their racist chants.

"I'm even more moved by that, but it doesn't really affect me. On the one hand its flattering - these are racist chants, but there are many Arab players in the league and I'm the only one who was worthy of such a hate song. That means that they're scared of me and what I can do with the ball. It's just a shame that their chants are racist and not personal. There really is no place for racism in soccer, and I hope these chants stop - the sooner the better."

According to a lawyer from the Israel Football Association, teams should leave the pitch the moment racist chants are heard. Do you approve?

"That may be a good idea, if that really happens and teams lose a few points, maybe their fans will start thinking. But I'm not sure it would really make a difference."

I can understand that you don't want to make a personal issue out of it, but don't you sometimes want to put them in their place?

"What can I really do? Can I really change anything? More powerful people than me have tried to change things, and have failed. Let's talk about real life, not only soccer. These things are difficult to change. I'm only a soccer player, can I change people's racist ideas? I always do my best every time I'm asked to help with an anti-racist campaign. But things just don't change. It's really hard to stop racism."

But nonetheless, you really missed Israel?

"There's no place like this country, and you appreciate that even more after playing abroad. I love the food here, the way people help each other, I love the life here."

Even as an Arab?

"It may be easier for me because I'm well known and people respect me. My family and friends suffer more from racism, but that's how it goes. We live here, and we've already learned to expect racism. I think we've already accepted the fact that that's how it is, and we try to cope with it. Maybe someday someone really special will appear and change things."