The new English Premier League season will kick off on Saturday without a single Israeli on any of the top league’s 20 teams.
It shouldn’t be seen as entirely out of the ordinary for a nation of Israel’s size and resources not to have any representatives in the Premier League. As Joshua Halickman, aka The Sports Rabbi, explained to the Forward over the past two decades of the League’s existence, only two Israeli players have really made an impact on the English game: Yossi Benayoun and Eyal Berkovic. In reality, “Israelis have never been major players in the Premier League.”
Yet last season, there was a relative glut of Israeli footballers in England’s top tier. Europa League winners Chelsea had ‘the Diamond from Dimona’ Benayoun in their ranks, though he was only a bit-part player, used mostly as a substitute and was unpopular with the fans. Striker Itay Schechter could have made more of an impact at Swansea City had he been given a fair run in the side, while workhorse defender Tal Ben Haim joined Queens Park Rangers for the second half of the season, playing only three games.
Now they’re all gone. Benayoun’s contract expired and he’s now a free agent, rumored to be on his way to Turkey or the MLS. Ben Haim, after having a loan move to Toronto FC nixed, signed a two-year contract with Belgian side Standard Liège. In search of first-team football, Schechter has gone back to Israel and Hapoel Tel Aviv, as has young Fulham forward Omri Altman — though he will play for crosstown rivals Maccabi.
Benayoun and Ben Haim were, in any case, moving to the latter stage of their careers. Both over the age of 30, they were no longer demonstrating that they had the pace, strength, or technical ability to compete in the Premier League. What is concerning, however, is that no players are coming up out of Israel to succeed them. “I don’t think English clubs are at all adverse to purchasing Israeli players,” CNN’s James Masters told The Forward. “It’s just at this moment in time, the majority aren’t at the standard required.”
The question of why countries produce good or bad generations of players is rarely answerable satisfactorily. In the case of Israel’s current paucity of talent able to play in the Premier League, it might have something to do with that as a small nation with fewer resources, the system for developing players at the club level is underdeveloped. “The youth academies need to be revamped top to bottom,” Halickman said. “Israel needs some serious football people and investment which, unfortunately, they don’t have to be able to produce top line footballers.”
It might also be the case, however, that Premier League clubs aren’t looking hard enough. “The problem is that Premier League teams always want proven players and high-profile names,” Raphael Gellar, founder of Gellar Sports Radio and host of Kicking it with Raphael on World Football Daily, told the Forward. “Israel doesn’t have that big name the fans or the clubs in England want. Even if they were very successful in Israel, it doesn’t mean much. If they let the youth play more often and gave more Israelis a chance, I think we would see a lot more Israelis try and play in England.”
Halickman agrees that for Premier League academies and youth programmes, Israel’s Ligat HaAl is something of a blindspot. “English clubs have been behind the times in general recruiting not just in Israel but around the world,” Halickman said. “Manchester United and Arsenal always seem to find the gems and build from within but other leagues such as the Bundesliga have done a terrific developing their own youth and then bringing in a number of foreigners. The same can be said of France.”
“There are some talented players out there,” Masters said, citing Tomer Hemed, who scored eleven league goals last season playing upfront for Mallorca in Spain, as well as Circassian midfielder Bibras Natkho of Russian side Rubin Kazin and Glasgow Celtic’s Arab-Israeli midfielder Beram Kayal. “But would these players succeed in the Premier League? It’s a risk,” Masters said. “Clubs, Manchester City and Chelsea apart, aren’t flush with cash and so are more considered in their dealings. Unless a player really stands out or is seen as a bargain, clubs are unlikely to move for him.”
Halickman and Gellar both pointed towards defensive midfielder Nir Biton, who has had trials with Manchester City but is now injured. “He was scouted at the under-21 tournament in Israel this past June and probably has the best chance to make it in the Premier League,” Halickman said. Gellar, however, does not agree. “He is a young talented player who I can see making his way to Europe but not the Premier League.”
Halickman also likes the look of Altman, who hopefully will get his chance next season after finishing his loan period with Maccabi Tel Aviv, as well as Eden Ben Basat, “a striker currently at Toulouse in the French League. He’s a guy with a nose for the goal and is built like the prototypical Premier League striker.” His dark horse is Rami Gershon, a centre back for Waasland-Beveren in the Belgian Pro League. “I think he has a bright future ahead of him. He will be a rock in defence for Israel and knows how to use his head which he did against Portugal this past March.”
The potential for Israeli players was aptly demonstrated at this summer’s under-21 European Championships, when they defeated England 1-0 in Jerusalem. I was at that game, and although England were astonishingly poor, Israel showed themselves to both more organised and also more creative side, competent at building from the back and stringing passes together, able to have a go at England and break down their back line.
But there will not be any Israeli players like Benayoun, Ben Haim or Berkovic in the English Premier League for a time unless the raw capability of these players can be harnessed and developed in order to build up players able to complete in the toughest, fastest league in the world. “It’s important to keep some kind of perspective,” Masters said. “Israel, relatively speaking, is a young country and does not yet have all the infrastructure in place to challenge the top countries. The foundations need to be laid where they can harness the talent of the younger generations. It needs investment, expertise and direction. That all takes time and I’m confident it will come in the future.”