With Israel’s drubbing of Bosnia and Herzegovina still fresh in my mind, it’s time for my semi-annual review of Israelis playing soccer in Europe. This list probably isn’t comprehensive, but it’s already long enough, and I offer it to you in order of what I find interesting.
While Celtic no longer competes for Champions League glory on an annual basis, they are still a club with a tremendous following around the world, so much so that when I wore my bright yellow Nir Bitton jersey to Starbucks last week two people stopped to talk to me about it. But despite their lack of Champions League success they still dominate the Scottish Premier League and their games pop up every now and again on TV.
Defensive Midfielder Nir Bitton is in his second season with Celtic and is getting consistent playing time for the Scottish champions. Despite his red card in the Champions League last fall and his mini-controversy when he posted pro-Israel comments during the Gaza War last summer, he is a star on the rise and I’m hoping he ends up leaving Celtic for the likes of Man City or Spurs before his four-year contract is up.
Central Midfielder Beram Kayal, probably the most notable Arab-Israeli footballer in Israel’s history, arrived at Celtic three years before Bitton and is in the final year of his four-year contract. He has worn the captain’s armband, scored Champions League goals, and continues to be a mainstay in the midfield for the Hoops.
Omer Damari, Wien (Austrian Bundelsiga)
While Bitton and Kayal are playing for Celtic, Omer Damari almost did, and the story about why Celtic didn’t sign him in 2011 is puzzling… after all, he is the next great Israeli striker. Since that ultimately unfulfilling hot and heavy flirtation with the Scottish giants, he tore up Israeli soccer with a blistering 69 goals over 131 matches in Israel from 2011-14. This summer he made his move to Europe and to Wien in the Austrian Bundesliga, where he has already scored nine goals in 13 appearances for the 6th-place club. Damari is also tied for the overall goal-scoring lead in Euro 2016 qualification. If he keeps this up, he might be looking at playing in a different Bundesliga one day soon.
Read this piece from ynet for more on Damari in Austria.
Bibras Natkho, CSKA Moscow (Russian Premier League)
This season finds the Circassian midfielder back in Russia, playing for CSKA Moscow of the Russian Premier League. Natkho spent four years playing for Rubin Kazan before a short stint last spring at PAOK in Greece, but is now plying his trade for the champions of Russia. This season he’s already had a hat trick against Rostov and a brace against FC Ural, and has scored nine goals in 15 games. He’s also had some memorable appearances for CSKA in the Champions League this year, with two assists and a goal in the five matches thus far, and with a little luck on matchday six CSKA will advance to the knockout stages. However, CSKA has to play in Bavaria against Bayern Munich on December 10, so it’s hard to envision them moving on, although a third-place finish in the group will put them into the Europa League.
Gershon, yet another Israeli center-back, had a brief cup of coffee with Celtic in between stints with Belgian sides Standard Liege, Kortrijk, and Waasland-Beveren. This year he’s with perennial contenders KAA Gent, who sit in 3rd place.
Joining Gershon at Gent this year is the fascinating attacking midfielder Kenny Sayef, an American-born kid from Panama City, Florida, who is also an Israeli Druze. Sayef has played for various Israeli youth teams since age 11, and made his pro debut for Bnei Sachnin in 2011… and there was even a rumor of Jurgen Klinsmann looking at him for eventual US National Team duty.
Tomer Hemed, Almeria (La Liga, Spain)
Tomer Hemed’s transition from Maccabi Haifa to La Liga in 2011 was impressive, as he scored 20 goals over his first three seasons in Spain with Mallorca. A torn Achilles tendon in 2013 took over seven months to heal and rehab, and in the meantime Mallorca was relegated. With his Achilles healed, Hemed signed over the summer with La Liga side UD Almeria and has netted one goal in 11 appearances. Hemed also scored for Israel in the Euro 2016 qualifier against Andorra in October.
Tal Ben Haim, Charlton Athletic (Football League Championship)
Tal Ben Haim (there are two on the national team, he is the elder) is the old man of Israeli soccer and the captain of the National Team. Now 32 years old and a longtime veteran of various clubs in England and Belgium, he finds himself this year playing center-back for Charlton Athletic of the Football League Championship, the second-highest division in England. Charlton is aiming for a top-four finish to move up to the Premier League, but the Addicks are currently five points behind that spot.
Itay Schechter, FC Nantes (Ligue 1, France)
Schechter, of the famous kippah-in-my-pocket celebration from the summer of 2012, is back in Europe hoping for greater success than in his uninspiring 2012-3 year at Swansea. After a quick half-season spent back home with HaPoel Tel Aviv last fall, Schechter transferred to Ligue 1 with Nantes, who are sitting in 7th place in the 20-team league, only 10 points out of first and only three points out of 2015 European qualification.
Moanes Dabour, Grasshopper (Swiss Super League)
Dabour, another Muslim player for Israel’s national team, moved from a very successful early career at Maccabi Tel Aviv (24 goals in 86 appearances) to Swiss side Grasshopper, where he has netted 19 goals in 31 appearances since his transfer in February. The Zurich-based club is in 6th place in the 10-team league.
Ben Sahar, Willem II (Eredivisie, Netherlands)
Ben Sahar was once a can’t-miss prospect, so much so that he made his debut for Chelsea as a 17-year old in 2006, but he never quite caught on. His club career has included stops at QPR, Sheffield Wednesday, Portsmouth, De Graafschap, Espanyol, HaPoel Tel Aviv, Auxerre, Hertha BSC, and a few more, but as of this year he’s playing for Dutch side Willem II. He has three goals in his 13 appearances for Willem II this season, who currently sit in 8th place in the 18-team Eredivisie.
Lior Refaelov, Club Brugge (Belgian Pro League)
Refaelov, an attacking midfielder, enters his fourth season in Belgium for Club Brugge, where he has racked up 22 goals in his 100 appearances for the club. He recently scored a hat trick in Brugge’s Europa League group play match against FC Copenhagen to lift Brugge into first place in the group.
Did I miss anyone? If so, let me know and I'll start following them.
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