Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Make aliyah, for soccer's sake!

By Yaniv Kubovitch and David Marwani

Soccer player Avihai Yadin does not remember the last time he had to charge his cellular phone's battery so often due to extensive use. Both Hapoel Tel Aviv owner Moni Harel and Maccabi Haifa Coach Elisha Levi call him frequently and are trying to persuade him to join their club.

"Don't sign with Haifa - we want you here," says Harel, while Levi promises to include the player in the starting lineup. That Yadin is in such demand despite a spate of injuries and a mediocre season at Hapoel Kfar Sava last season shows how few Israeli players are on the market this summer, leading teams to come up with a number of creative solutions, like signing Jewish players from abroad.

For months, Maccabi Tel Aviv has been seeking an Israeli left defender. It was considering several options but soon ruled them out. "The Israeli market is very poor and there are few options," Aviv Bushinski, the chairman of Maccabi Tel Aviv, explains. But Maccabi came up with an ingenious way of filling the position with an Israeli player: Find a foreign player who is Jewish or is of Jewish descent, give them Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, and the problem is solved. Thus Sjaak Polak, an aging midfielder who used to play for clubs including Sparta Rotterdam and who is of Jewish descent, is on his way to Maccabi Tel Aviv. Last year, the same team signed French Jews Rudy Hadad and Jonathan Assous. Maccabi Tel Aviv also plans to expedite Armenian Ilya Yavruyan's citizenship process.

Maccabi Haifa also sees the value of signing Jewish players - the team has signed Ukrainian-born U.S.-Israeli citizen Leonard Krupnik. "Show me where you can get a better defender than Krupnik!" Haifa coach Elisha Levi says.

Belgian teams' increased interest in local players has cut the number of Israelis available on the market, which means local teams are willing to pay more money and get less in return. Indeed, some club officials are finding it hard to come to terms with the situation.

"If you would have woken me up from a dream and told me that Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa were competing for Avihai Yadin, I wouldn't have believed it," says Bnei Sakhnin coach Freddie David. "There are no Israeli players on the market, period. I'm not even talking about good players who go to Belgium or Beitar, I'm talking about standard players. They're also unavailable."

After his club was relegated in the last round of the last season, the Maccabi Herzliya chairman Ariel Shayman was expecting condolence calls over his team's defeat. Instead, he received calls asking about the availability of his players.

"That our players were snatched at the season's end shows the state the league is in," Herzliya Manager-Director Shimon Mesika says. "It wasn't me or Shayman behind the relegation, but the players. They must be taking on all new recruits." Before long, Maccabi Petah Tikva claimed Omer Buksenboim and Maccabi Netanya snatched Shalev Menashe, and the entire Herzliya squad found comfortable homes elsewhere.

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