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YOSSI BENAYOUN: ISRAEL’S DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH

Israel haven't made the greatest impact in international football, but one Yossi Benayoun can fly the flag of his country. This is the story of his career, as he would become one of the country's greatest athletes.

In a country that is often tortured by sufferings of war and pain, it becomes difficult for people to find solace. Israel presents a classic case of it, as it continues to be an arena of political warfare that has never allowed residents in some parts of the country to seek peace. While football is not too popular in Israel, it has sometimes acted as something the Israelis can derive joy from.

The national team has hardly been a reason for that. The last time they qualified for a World Cup was back in 1970 and while that did prove to many that Israel was a footballing nation, there has been silence since. One man who has made the country proud in recent times is Yossi Benayoun.

He is arguably one of those people from Israel whose very mention would be enough to make anyone from the country smile. 

The birth of the country’s famous son would take place in a desert town with a population of only around 33,000. Benayoun was born in Dimona – a small town in the south of Israel. It houses families that emigrated from Morocco in the 1970s and Yossi’s family were one of them.

Benayoun’s father was a former player himself and had plied his trade with Hapoel Dimona around the time of his son’s birth. In small towns in any country, news spreads fast. The footballing abilities that young Yossi had inherited from his father had caught the gaze of many when he was around nine-years-old.

That was when he was spotted by a scout from Hapoel Be’er Sheva, the famous Israeli club based around 40 kilometres away. His father used to take him to train on weekends on what would journey beyond the desert towards another part of the country altogether. In an interview with The Independent in 2005, Benayoun has admitted that playing in the Israeli Premier Division was his only dream while he was growing up.

The fragile, pacy midfielder impressed many in and around Dimona and he had become a prodigy in the country when he was 15. But during his emergence, it was Ajax who came calling. This was beyond the youngster’s dreams and even though it was tough for anyone like him from a country like Israel to settle in a city as big as Amsterdam, he took the chance.

From a small club in Israel to one of the biggest clubs in the world in terms of production of talent, it was a big step for the 15-year-old. He had begun to be called ‘the Kid’ by people back home due to his boyish looks and that name stuck as he grew up because the features always remained.

Yossi’s family had accompanied him to Amsterdam during his trial with Ajax. His parents, sisters, and brothers found it hard to settle in the Dutch capital, despite Benayoun performing excellently for de Godenzonen during this period. He had become a star for the side and his name captured attention aplenty..

Benayoun was the highest goalscorer for the Ajax youth team and he had blossomed. The club offered him a four-year deal. It was an opportunity that any young players would jump onto without any hesitation. After all, this was Ajax. 

But Benayoun rejected the contract offer. In an interview with The Independent, he said: “It ripped my family. It was very difficult. My girlfriend, Mirat was also just 15. It was just too hard for everyone. It was just not the right time.”

Because of this homesickness, Benayoun returned home to Dimona and he had to start all over again from the place he had come from. 

The Israeli press went hard on him and his decision to come back home. He was labeled weak and many thought that it dragged him back. Others felt that the decision to not sign for Ajax was a sign of why he won’t succeed in his career.

But a big break came that very summer – weeks after having turned down Ajax. He earned a call-up to the Israel national side in the Euro Under-16s of 1996 and that gave him the platform to steal the spotlight. That is exactly what he did. 

He stood out throughout the tournament and helped his nation finish third – their highest finish in any continental competition till date for Israel. His performances were so impactful that Benayoun earned the tag of the Most Valuable Player of that tournament.

It was at this point that interest in the then 16-year-old rose in Europe. If not for the compulsion to serve national service duties though, he might as well have ended up elsewhere. At the age of 18, he had to undergo national service for three years and this forced him to stay in the country longer. It turned out to be a boon in the longer run.

But by this time, he had broken into the first team at Be’er Sheva and the side was having to deal with relegation in the 1997-98 campaign of the Liga Leumit. The battle for survival went down the wire and Benayoun had scored as many as 14 times in his debut campaign. The last game of the season beckoned against Maccabi Haifa and Sheva just had to win to survive, whilst hoping they get some luck from the other fixtures.

A decisive moment came in stoppage time when Benayoun’s side won a penalty. A goal would have kept them in the league and a miss could have seen them relegated. It all hinged on that one spot-kick.

None of the team’s senior players stepped up – too crippled by the pressure and too scared to face what was to come. But up stepped ‘The Kid’ – the club’s highest scorer that season and the league’s fourth-highest goal-getter.

The penalty was saved but the rebound was put coolly into the net. There was a relief and the joy was palpable. Survival was achieved. The 17-year-old had done something that was beyond the ability and temperament for someone of his age. But moments later, Benayoun burst into tears. Other results went against them, and relegation was unavoidable.

These initial years were perhaps a sign of things to come. They testified Benayoun’s mental fortitude and the ability to overcome obstacles and criticism. 

A move to Maccabi followed and the deal that sent him to the northern port city of Israel had a clause which would see Maccabi and Be’er Sheva share profits from Benayoun’s sale to a European club in the future. 

Young Yossi had the time of his life at the Haifa-based side. The club made in-roads in the European Cup Winners’ Cup of 1998 and for the first time at a young age, Benayoun was playing European football. He scored against Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of the first round as Maccabi progressed on a 4-3 scoreline.

The teenager also scored for his side in the second leg of the second round against Austrian side Ried, playing a key role in taking Maccabi into the third round of the competition. A 4-0 hammering on aggregate against Lokomotiv Moscow knocked them out, but Benayoun impressed in the league too.

He found the back of the net 16 times in the league, helping the side finish third in the Liga Leumit. Following this season, the Israeli Premier League was formed and Liga Leumit became the second division of Israeli football. Benayoun came out with flying colors in the 1999-2000 campaign, scoring 19 times in 38 appearances and becoming the third highest scorer in the league that season.

Maccabi missed out on the league by nine points that season, finishing second behind Hapoel Tel Aviv. 

The arrival of Avram Grant from Maccabi Tel Aviv brought success to the club and Benayoun sparkled under him, helping the side win the league after seven long years, beating Hapoel Tel Aviv to it by a margin of seven points. Benayoun scored 13 times that season, picking up the Most Valuable Player of the Season award. 

The next season, it happened again. While Benayoun was injured for a good part of the season early on, he played a key role in helping his side win the league again. Yakubu, who went onto play for Blackburn Rovers, Everton and Middlesbrough, was part of the side too. Benayoun scored only seven times but capped off his last season as a youngster in his country with a league title.

That summer, the move that Be’er Sheva and Maccabi Haifa had expected came. It wasn’t the biggest of moves to a club as big as Ajax but Racing Santander signed him on a free transfer. Racing had earned promotion into La Liga in the 2001-02 campaign and had a first division status to retain. Benayoun was seen as someone who could help them do that after coming so close to saving Be’er Sheva from going down not long before.

It was at the Campos de Sport de El Sardinero that Benayoun improved with every season and the goals proved that. His five goals in the first season helped Racing survive the drop by a comfortable margin of eight points. The goals tally increased the next season and his tally of seven again helped the Los Montañeses avoid the drop. Despite being used in a variety of positions across the front, Benayoun kept on improving.

Benayoun Racing
BENAYOUN MADE A HUGE NAME FOR HIMSELF DURING HIS TIME WITH RACING SANTANDER IN SPAIN

He got nine the next season and in the summer of 2005, Racing had decided that they’ll make the most out of the player who was now a regular for the Israeli national team and had attracted interest from top clubs like Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United in the Premier League.

But it was another newly-promoted side that took the chance. West Ham had beaten Preston North End in the final of the play-off final and had sealed a Premier League return. Manager Alan Pardew saw Benayoun as someone who could change games on the counter-attack and someone who could provide them with pace when the team sat in sound defensive shape.

The Fee was £2.5 million and Benayoun was off and running soon, scoring for the Hammers in a 4-0 win over Aston Villa in September. Pardew was so impressed with his summer signing’s performance that he compared him to a certain Zinedine Zidane in the way he lifted everyone off their seats. More than that, Pardew was impressed by his work ethic.

He scored five times in the league that season but there more about him than goals. He fit the hard-working style that Pardew wanted his style to play. He worked his socks off in every game and that helped the Irons finish ninth in their first season back into the top flight. 

Benayoun started the FA Cup final against Liverpool in 2006 and also featured in the last game of the 2006-07 campaign which saw West Ham survive the drop by picking up a shocking 1-0 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford. Alan Pardew was sacked by the club in December and Alan Curbishley was roped in. When Carlos Tevez, Nigel Reo-Cocker and Bobby Zamora scored goals during the last few games of the season, Benayoun did the under-appreciated hard work.

By the end of 2007, Benayoun had verbally agreed to a new four-year deal at Upton Park. Times seemed positive for the East London outfit and there was a feeling that the only way forward was up. Benayoun was expected to be part of that future.

But Rafael Benítez had been left impressed by this slightly built workhorse. The Spaniard has always loved players who would put in the extra yards out on the pitch for the side and Liverpool made the move. When Benayoun had only verbally agreed to pen the West Ham extension, his agent had agreed terms with the Reds over a potential move to Anfield.

In controversial circumstances, the biggest move in Benayoun’s career happened in the summer of 2007. The fee was the biggest any club had paid for him – £5 million. Benayoun was the national team skipper, was 25 and fit the way Benítez wanted his side to play.

Benítez was appreciative of Benayoun’s ability to play in different positions and the blessed pair of feet that allowed him to sometimes dance past defenders at will. When that combines with a steady work-rate, it makes for a typical Rafa Benítez player.

And the Reds’ new number 11 caught the eye. His goal against Reading in the League Cup is still remembered by many. In what was a wonderful solo goal that involved a dribble down the right, Benayoun found the top right corner of the goal and helped Liverpool to a 4-2 win. He scored a hat-trick against Havant and Waterlooville in the FA Cup and then again in a Champions League group stage game against Beşiktaş.

Liverpool finished fourth that season and reached the semi-final in the Champions League. That season wasn’t the best for Benayoun but he had stolen the hearts of many with his selfless work on the pitch. He had become a trusted and dogged character that the side could always rely on to do a job. At the end of the campaign, he switched the number that he had worn at all his previous clubs – 15.

That indeed proved to be a lucky charm as the second season saw Benayoun establish himself as a regular in the side. He famously scored the only goal of the game in Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium and that perhaps, still is the most important goal of his career.

His brace against Arsenal in the famous 4-4 encounter that season has also gone down in history. While Andrey Arshavin got the plaudits for what was a sensation hat-trick, Benayoun had a role to play in all the drama that unfolded. One of those goals came in stoppage time, but the draw meant Liverpool had missed the chance to steal a march on Manchester United in the title race.

Despite him having scored four times in the last five games that season, Benayoun couldn’t take Liverpool to their 19th top-flight title win as they finished only four points behind Sir Alex Ferguson’s United.

The next season, Benayoun put his name down in the history books of English football by being the first player to score a hat-trick in the Premier League, the FA Cup, and the Champions League by scoring three in Liverpool’s 4-0 win over newly promoted Burnley. All three goals stood for what a player he was.

Benayoun Liverpool
BENAYOUN EARNED A CULT HERO STATUS WHILE HE WAS AT LIVERPOOL

The first one was a typical and effortless dribble down the right side of the field that saw him glide past two Burnley players before comfortably placing the ball past Gábor Király. The last two were all about his intelligence and movement and were team goals to savor for the Reds.

By this time, the Benítez effect had faded at Anfield. The club had lost its key players as Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa left for the greener pastures of Real Madrid, John Arne Riise left for Roma and Mohamed Sissoko joined Juventus. 

A majority of players who had been key in the FA Cup final of 2006 had left and a generational change came in. Liverpool finished seventh and were knocked out of the Europa League by eventual winners Atlético Madrid, despite Benayoun scoring against Los Rojiblancos in the semi-final.

At the end of the season, the exit of Rafa Benítez also saw Benayoun leave Anfield after having made over 130 appearances for the club. In an interview later, he revealed that he was often mistreated by Benítez even when he scored key goals for the club and he had made up his mind to leave the club well before the Spaniard had left.

Another pragmatist in Carlo Ancelotti had finished his first season in England by taking Chelsea back to the pinnacle of English football. In a side that had enough craft and goalscoring prowess of players like Didier Drogba, there was a need for someone like Benayoun – a character who could put a shift in and do the job without complaining.

But the Chelsea tenure made it clear that at 30, Benayoun had passed the age of playing for a team that was then challenging for the title on a regular basis. He only made seven appearances that season and a ruptured Achilles injury had kept him out for a vast majority of the campaign. It was a sign of things to come for a man who had become a cult figure for Liverpool in his three-year-long stay.

A club like Chelsea hardly sits still in a transfer window. By the time Benayoun recovered his match sharpness towards the end of the season, they had struck an agreement to bring in Valencia’s Juan Mata to Stamford Bridge for a fee of £23.5 million. It was a signal of a change in approach for a side that had a more progressive coach André Villas-Boas at the helm next season. Younger players like Kevin de Bruyne and Lucas Piazon were also roped in.

It became clearer when Benayoun handed over the number ten shirt to Mata, who had worn the same number back at the Mestalla and for the Spain Under-21s. This was enough to suggest that the Israeli would not be too involved in Chelsea’s first team plans.

Having sensed that, a loan move to Arsenal followed. Arsène Wenger’s side were consistently looking for Champions League football and it seemed like the right move for the player.

It turned out to be a pleasant experience. Benayoun scored Arsenal’s late winner against Aston Villa in a Premier League game and also captained the side in a League Cup game against Manchester City. As much as he had not expected it, it was another feather in the cap for Benayoun.

He appeared 19 times in the Premier League that season, scoring four. His contributions helped the Gunners finish third in the league and he even scored in the last game of the season, as Arsenal beat West Bromwich Albion 3-2 at the Hawthorns.

A return to Chelsea beckoned but there was still no room for him to play. Mata had grown into a fine player and one of the best in the league. Eden Hazard was signed from Lille and he was expected to start over someone like Benayoun. Because of that, another loan deal came calling.

Benayoun Arsenal
A MOVE TO ARSENAL DURING THE LATTER STAGES OF BENAYOUN’S TIME IN ENGLAND SEEMINGLY MADE SENSE FOR ALL PARTIES

It was West Ham again. The return came five years after he first departed the club and while many wanted the second coming to be a good one, injuries ruined it. It was reported that the then manager Sam Allardyce was looking to sign the Israeli on a permanent basis but the injury issues made sure that the club backed away from such a deal. It was a month-long knee injury first but once he returned to training, Benayoun did his ligaments and his loan deal was cancelled.

A season-long tenure at Queens Park Rangers followed and the came a Chelsea exit on a permanent basis. Benayoun had lost the ability to cut defenses open with a burst of pace that allowed him to ooze through. Injuries and age had taken their toll on the 33-year-old. QPR had endured relegation and felt that Benayoun had the experience and know-how of getting the club back into the Premier League.

He did score thrice for what was the fourth London side he played for, having appeared regularly times in the Championship. QPR finished fourth in the Championship and managed to oust Derby County in the play-off final at Wembley. But Benayoun’s deal at Loftus Road expired as the Premier League beckoned for him and Harry Redknapp’s men.

Perhaps, it was fair that Benayoun went back to Israel after a Premier League experience that saw him get revered as a cult figure at not just Liverpool, but at West Ham too. He returned to Maccabi Haifa but after a successful two-year spell at his former club, joined their fiercest rivals in Maccabi Tel-Aviv. 

Short spells at three more clubs didn’t yield too much but it was a fitting end to a career that finished where it had started off with so much expectation. When a young Benayoun was criticised for not having joined Ajax as a youngster, he would never have known that he will go onto silence them so brilliantly.

For any young kid growing up in a country that is hardly known for its football, Benayoun is a role model that they can look up to and aspire to be like. Be it mentally or what he did on the pitch, he had a temperament that set him apart despite not being the strongest of players physically. It is that resolve that has made him one of the greatest Israeli sportsmen in history. 

Growing up to pursue his dream played a vital role in making Benayoun a man. But for Israel, he would always be known as ‘The Kid’ who captured their imagination as a child and made the country proud as an adult.

BY KAUSTUBH PANDEY