— by Joshua Halickman
The last time Israel made it into a top-level soccer competition was 1970, when it went to the World Cup in Mexico. Now, with an excellent start to the 2016 UEFA European Championship qualification tournament, the expectations are once again high.
One reason for this is that the tournament has now expanded from 16 to 24 countries, allowing some of the smaller nations a chance at Europe’s top competition. The country will stand still when the National Team marches onto the field on Saturday night, March 28 after Shabbat in Haifa for the Wales game, and on Tuesday, March 31 in Jerusalem against Belgium.
As I was walking up to the Kiryat Shemona Municipal Stadium, I saw the beautiful snowcapped Hermon Mountain in the background of this picturesque facility planted right in the middle of a suburban neighborhood, far away from the hustle and bustle of Tel Aviv. This is where the 2014 Israel State Cup champions play and train for their matches against the other sides in Israel’s soccer league, Ligat Ha’Al.
I was waiting for Guy Haimov, one of the three Israel National Team goalkeepers looking to claim the starting position for Israel’s crucial Euro 2016 qualifiers. Suddenly, I saw the figure of a man on a bicycle pulling up into the front area of the stadium. You guessed it: Haimov rides his bike to work each day. “I live close by and it’s good exercise” the 6-ft. goalkeeper said as we met at the main gate.
Israel started their European qualifying campaign by winning all three of its games and sits on top of their group with nine out of nine points. The upcoming match against Wales will feature one of the world’s best and most popular players in Real Madrid’s star Gareth Bale. Belgium is ranked fourth in the FIFA World Rankings and has a collection of greats including Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany.
The stakes are high and the pressure will be immense on those evenings especially for the starting goalkeeper, but Haimov said, “I am not even thinking about that yet.”
As we ventured into the stadium, I got a peek at the team’s modest dressing room. Every player has a stall with his training uniform sitting meticulously folded waiting to be worn in just an hour as coach Barak Bachar’s team prepares for their next match in just a few days. Haimov put on his training jersey and fit his feet snugly into a pair of flip-flops and we made our way out onto the lush green grass and into one of the dugouts.
Sitting on the plastic molded seats we began discussing where we both came from. “Isn’t it dangerous in Jerusalem?” he asked me as I told him that I had traveled more than three hours to watch the previous night’s Israel State Cup match with Maccabi Tel Aviv that ended in a 1-1 tie. I countered, “Isn’t it dangerous here in Kiryat Shemona with what went on recently with Hezbollah by the border?” We both said no, we don’t feel threatened at all, soccer is our escape and savior from the harsh realities that surround Israel and the Middle East.
“I grew up in Holon and both my parents were born in Israel,” Haimov said.
Maccabi Tel Aviv was always my club, beginning when I joined the youth system at five and a half years old. In school I played soccer and I had no idea I would end up being a professional. We just played for fun and to be together with friends; that was the most important thing when I was a youngster. It was much later when I saw that I was good enough to play on the youth Israel National Teams at ages 14-17 when I started seeing myself potentially making it as a soccer player and as a professional.
Being a goalkeeper is not always the most popular position to play, as kids would always want to imitate their heroes, which happened to usually the top scorers in the world. Haimov found out that if he had any chance of playing with his peers, keeper would be the position he would have to try and master:
At 7 years old I realized that I just couldn’t keep up with the other kids. If I wanted to be like my idols Alexander Uvarov, the great Macacbi Tel Aviv shot stopper, Gianluigi Buffon of Juventus, or Iker Casillas at Real Madrid, I would need to change positions. I was lucky my parents didn’t think too much about it perhaps being a dangerous position to play and didn’t have a problem with me being a goalkeeper so off I went.
However, today my parents can’t watch the matches live and will record them to watch later, once they have already heard the result. They will usually go out to the movies while I play and only afterwards sit down to see what transpired in the game.”
Being part of Maccabi Tel Aviv had many advantages for Haimov:
Growing up in the Maccabi youth system offered me the chance to receive the best soccer education both from the top coaches and some of the best players. All of the best kids wanted to go to Maccabi Tel Aviv because they were the biggest club in Israel and they had terrific management.
As Haimov continued to ply his trade under the watchful eye of Maccabi, he finally broke through to the club’s first team and started his first Israel Premier League match against Hapoel Petach Tikva on March 11, 2006 under interim coach, Dutchman Ton Caanen. He would have one more start that season but would end up tearing a ligament in his shoulder which would put him on the shelf for 8 months. However, when he finally came back from injury he was loaned out to Kfar Saba of the second division for a number of years.
Haimov thought that after his spell with Kfar Saba he would be back with the yellow-and-blue as the second choice keeper under former youth coach Ran Ben Shimon, but fate again would place him back into the second league for the 2009-10 season, this time with Hakoach Ramat Gan, under the watchful eye of former Israeli legend Vicky Peretz. After a good season, he finally had his chance to play significant games in the Premier League as up-and-coming club Kiryat Shemona, who now had Ran Ben Shimon as their manager would snag him own loan in 2010-11.
Kiryat Shemona is certainly a long way from the friendly confines of the Tel Aviv area and for someone who grew up in the center of the country, to move up north was something quite unique and definitely different. But soccer is soccer and Haimov had finally earned his chance to spend some serious minutes in goal playing against the best talent Israel offered.
It was also an opportunity to wipe away some grudges as Haimov’s side defeated Maccabi Tel Aviv 4-0 and earned a shutout against his former club. “After that match, Maccabi, which now had manager Motti Ivanir in place of recently fired Avi Nimni, wanted me back and I signed a 3-year contract,” he said.
With Maccabi Tel Aviv for the 2011-12 season, Guy knew he would have a fair chance to play some significant minutes at his childhood club. And minutes he would play where he saw success both on the European stage as well as domestically:
One of the biggest thrills in my career was to beat Greek powerhouse Panathinaikos in the UEFA Europa League at home in Bloomfield Stadium 3-0. As well, I scored a clean sheet against Tel Aviv rivals Hapoel winning 1-0 which was an incredible feeling, especially when I had to be interviewed by Avi Nimni, Maccabi’s former manager who didn’t want me. That gave me incredible satisfaction knowing I was able to show those who doubted me that I could reach the top.
After a good season for the young ‘keeper, Maccabi brought in a new technical director, Jordi Cryuff who made it clear that he would want to bring in a foreigner to play goal in Tel Aviv. Though Cryuff would have been happy to have Haimov as his second choice keeper under new coach Oscar Garcia, he knew he had to play game in and game out:
I understood that it was nothing personal and in order for me to continue to progress I needed playing time. That’s where Ran Ben Shimon came back into the picture again and I joined him in Cyprus on loan once again.
Together with his wife Cindy, who was also raised in Holon, and baby boy Amit (the family has since had another child, Avigail), Haimov moved quickly to find a home on the island country. Just a 40-minute flight from Israel, he started playing for his new team AEK Larnaca and ended up setting the Cyrus all-time shutout streak record manning goal for Ben Shimon:
Going to Cyprus was the best decision that I made and I had no time to think about it as everything happened so fast. There were about 10 other Israeli soccer players in Cyprus at the time and the Rabbi at the local Chabad house made us feel so welcome. The supporters were also extremely kind after they found out what I could do for their club and I didn’t feel one negative sentiment the whole time I was there.
However the Cypriot banks collapsed and Haimov had not received many months of salary, so he went back to Israel even after he had received a number of offers from other teams in Cyprus as well as Greece:
I came back to Maccabi Tel Aviv for the 2013-14 season training camp under new coach Paulo Sousa but I knew I would not begin the year with the club. My agent Gilad Katsav was able to secure a transfer back to Kiryat Shemona as owner Izzy Sheratzky bought my contract and I became the undisputed #1 starter for the team.
Sheratzky is ironically a savvy Tel Aviv businessman who decided to take a small time club in a quiet town and build it into a contender that is able to threaten teams with much larger budgets than theirs.
In his first year back up north, Haimov played in every Israel league match last season where he had a staggering 14 shutouts leading Kiryat Shemona to a third place finish. The team also won the Israel State Cup for the first time in the franchise’s history and had the chance to hoist the trophy after being presented by the outgoing president, Shimon Peres. This year the team is fighting for the legue title, only a few points out of first place, behind Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“I am always active and never rest as I’m always prepared to play in every game. If you relax and take games off you become vulnerable,” the keeper professed.
It’s thanks to Hezy Nachshon & Koby Bitran who coached me when I was young at Maccabi, Ami Genish my goaltending coach at Ramat Gan and now Pini Avraham the Kiryat Shemona keeper coach that have made me the athlete I am today, and gave me the opportunity to play the way I am capable of.
Of course Barak Bachar, my coach and former teammate at Kiryat Shemona, has tremendous confidence in me. When we both played together back a few years ago we used to play Playstation and we ate together on Friday nights. Now that he is coach we have been able to adapt the relationship to be that of player and coach.
Hezy Nachshon knew that Haimov was something special right from the get-go:
I know Guy since he was 13, and after a few practices with the Maccabi Tel Aviv youth program, I saw that he was ahead of the other children playing keeper. I took him on as a personal project where I would work with him prior to the regular practice.
Haimov, a veteran National Team keeper, has only played in one match for his country but has been either the number-two or -three goalkeeper for a few years:
Dudu Aoute had been the starter for so many years and now that he is retired the opportunity is open.
I would love to be able to get a chance to play again for Israel as the only game I did play was a huge disappointment. I had come in for an injured Aoute in the second half of a match in Croatia, but we got a red card early on and I ended giving up three goals as we lost 3-1.
It’s my dream to be able to lead Israel out onto the pitch against Wales and Belgium knowing it’s a responsibility to represent Israel and the Jewish people around the world. I want that second chance.
The competition is stiff with Ofir Marchiano of Ashdod and Ariel Harush of Netanya looking to claim the coveted spot, however both Nachshon and Ami Genish weighed in saying that Haimov without a doubt should be the starting keeper for the National Team. Perhaps the fact that he wears the number 55 for his club team representing double hamsa, will help as well and he will be between the pipes at the end of March.
Very often, the cream of the crop of Israeli players head over to the stronger leagues in Europe to see how they can match up against the best of the best, but for now Kiryat Shemona is Haimov’s home as the 29-year-old has no designs to play outside of Israel again, but as he says you never know. He also understands that the lifespan of a goalkeeper is much longer than that of a regular player and has many years left to give on the field of play so he has not thought much about what will be after his career is over. “I can play until 40 and after that I would like to get my coaching certificate and be a goalkeeper coach or even a head coach,” he said.
Haimov said that in Israel, much needs to be done to help improve the quality of the players being produced in the youth system:
If I was the head of the Israel Football Association I would invest in the youth. From facilities, to the culture and seriousness that we see around the world, this is something that is a must in Israel. You can see the difference in other countries, Israel must put its energies into the youth program and help the many talented players that our country has. This is where we need to build and put our best efforts into.
As we were both looking out onto the gorgeous landscape shimmering in the sun, Haimov had a message to all of Israel’s supporters, friends and the Jewish people around the world:
We should be proud to be Jewish, we should never be afraid to do anything, we should reach for our dreams because G-d is with us and we can rely on G-d for guidance. Come and visit Israel to see the wonderful cities, encounter the people, but most importantly come to the Holy Land and support us.
Who could refuse such an invitation, as the Israel National Team is about to embark on two of their most important matches in the last 45 years?