England v Israel? No, Israelis in England
Meet the Jewish stars who are lighting up Premiership football over here
THE INVASION of Israeli footballers into the Premiership took on new proportions last weekend, when four made their mark in the top-flight. For those non sports obsessives who nonetheless may have picked up something about a massive England v Israel showdown on March 24, this gives the JC an opportunity to introduce some of the rising Israeli stars who are already making their mark with English teams.
Since Avi Cohen made his Liverpool debut in 1979, players from the Promised Land have been few and far between. “Rocket” Ronnie Rosenthal, who won a League winners’ medal with Liverpool in 1990, and Eyal Berkovic are two of the more recent success stories, but the latest crop of Israelis are proving a big hit. With the Euro 2008 qualifier against England on March 24 looming large, their development must have England manager Steve McClaren quaking in his boots.
On Saturday, Yossi Benayoun led the way, scoring two goals in West Ham United’s 3-3 draw in the London derby against Fulham.
Having featured in recent FA Cup and Carling Cup ties, Chelsea’s 17year-old striker Ben Sahar came off the bench to make his league debut in the 4-0 home win over Wigan Athletic.
“Playing in three major competitions in a week is something not a lot of players get to do at his age,” said Chelsea reserve team coach Brendan Rogers, “and that is a sign of his progress at the club. We are very happy with him and believe this is the beginning of a promising career at Chelsea.”
Bolton Wanderers duo Tal Ben Haim and Idan Tal, who played in the goalless draw against Manchester City, complete the list.
A fifth Israeli, Ilan Bachar, could also join the fold. He is currently undergoing a trial with Championship outfit QPR and his agent Ronen Katzav is hoping QPR manager John Gregory will offer the full-back a contract until the end of the season.
The 32-year-old international defender was released by Premier division side Hakoach Amidar Ramat Gan after admitting that he was out clubbing in Tel Aviv until the early hours of Sunday morning.
Bachar was a member of the Hapoel Tel Aviv team which reached the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup in 2001, beating Chelsea along the way.
It was also reported this week that super-agent Pini Zahavi negotiated a £3 million payment after Nigerian striker Yakubu Aiyegbeni moved to Middlesbrough from Portsmouth in 2005.
This followed a handsome fee of £1.125 million received from Manchester United for representing England international Rio Ferdinand during his move from Leeds United in 2002.
Zahavi this week agreed to help Lord Stevens’ Quest Team with its inquiries into alleged transfer irregularities.
It is not all good news for the Jews, though. The fall-out between Chelsea chief Roman Abramovich and boss Jose Mourinho continues to rumble.
The Russian owner, who rarely misses a Chelsea match, is not on speaking terms with his manager after “the special one” expressed discontent at the owner’s decision to withhold funds to strengthen his injury-hit squad.
Teenage striker Sahar could be joined at the club by another Israeli with Portsmouth technical director Avraham Grant tipped to move to Stamford Bridge in a coaching role.
Grant, the former Israeli national team boss — who was brought to Fratton Park by Russian owner Alexandre Gaydamak on the recommendation of Zahavi — is believed to have been put forward at an annual review of staff.
Abramovich is said to regard Grant, — who, contrary to reports, does not speak Russian — as someone with the ability to improve the fortunes of £30 million striker Andriy Shevchenko.
Mourinho has denied he is under pressure to replace assistant-manager Steve Clarke and has threatened to leave the club if he is ousted in favour of the Israeli. Portsmouth boss Harry Redknapp has added to the debate, insisting he would not stand in Grant’s way. “If Avraham wants to go it will be his decision,” acknowledged Redknapp.
“I do not have a problem with Avraham and I don’t think anyone here could be upset with him in any shape or form [if he left].” Mourinho was hoping to snap up £2 million-rated Ben Haim, only for the deal to fall through on Wednesday evening.
Bolton boss Sam Allardyce, who has seen the former Maccabi Tel Aviv stopper mature into one of the Premiership’s top defenders, has resigned himself to losing the 23-yearold defender, who is out of contract in the summer. But he does not expect the player to leave during the January transfer window.
“At the moment it looks as though he will be with us for the rest of the season as we haven’t had an acceptable offer from any club,” commented Allardyce. “He won’t sign a new contract and I’m sure he will be off in the summer. I don’t blame him for using the rules and regulations.”
Portsmouth owner Gaydamak has assured the club’s supporters of his long-term commitment to the South Coast club and spoken of plans to redevelop Fratton Park or relocate. “Our fans are the most unique and strongest in the country,” he told supporters at a recent meeting. “
Having taken so long to make their mark, the Israelis are here to stay.
West Ham’s Yossi Benayoun celebrates his return to form with two goals in last weekend’s derby against Fulham