Fatally injured in a motorcycle crash on December 20, Avi Cohen, arguably Israel’s greatest ever soccer player, died on December 28, aged 54.
The first Israeli to play in England, Cohen moved to Liverpool in 1979 when they were Europe’s premier team. Although he never established himself in the first team he was famous for being chosen for the game against Southampton on September 20, 1980 — Yom Kippur. To the anger of the Israeli press and the mixed but general disappointment of soccer-supporting British Jews he took the opposite route from American baseball legends Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax and decided to play.
This Yom Kippur game always overshadowed what was a trailblazing but ultimately unspectacular career. He was personally dependable without standing out and, as a defender, his job was accomplished without making a splash. Coming before soccer players commanded vast salaries and also before Israel’s national team was strong enough to compete on a world level, Cohen ended his career with neither fortune nor glory. His ability is evidenced by a cluster of medals that his teams won, even when supporters might struggle to remember his involvement.
After representing teams in a variety of different countries, Cohen completed his playing career in Israel where he proceeded to coach a number of teams. At the time of his death he was chairman of the Israel Professional Footballers Association. Perhaps his most important achievement, though, was to show England and Europe’s elite leagues that Israeli soccer players were worth employing. Tamir Cohen, one of his three sons, is following in his father’s footsteps, currently an international Israeli soccer player who plays for Bolton Wanderers in the English Premier League.
At the game on Sunday December 26, when Bolton scored, Swedish striker Johan Elmander held up a Bolton shirt with the words “Get Well Soon Avi Cohen” printed on the back, in tribute to Avi and Tamir. It was too late for Avi, but the sentiment reflected his most enduring legacy — worldwide appreciation for Israeli soccer, and for Avi Cohen.