After a rocky start at Bolton Wanderers, Israeli footballer Tamir Cohen is proving himself to be a star player. He’s just one of a number of top Israeli footballers making a name for themselves today in European teams.
“There’s only one Avi Cohen,” sang tens of thousands of soccer fans crammed into Anfield Stadium, home to the illustrious English club Liverpool, after the Israeli fullback scored with a thunderous shot following a corner kick. The goal – which gave Liverpool a 2-1 lead en route to their 4-1 victory over Aston Villa – effectively sealed the club the English league title.
That was back in 1980. “I remember that moment so well – the song sent a shiver down my spine,” Cohen recalls to Israel21c.
Three decades on, fans of English Premier League team Bolton Wanderers are singing the same song – only this time to Avi’s son, Tamir, who after a rocky initial start last season, now appears to be in a breakout year, surprising fans and soccer experts with his potential.
Twenty-five-year-old Tamir Cohen joined the club in January 2008, making his debut soon after in an FA Cup third round match against Sheffield United. In March he scored against his father’s old club, but a niggling thigh injury kept him out of the team for five months, and he struggled to establish himself at the Reebok stadium.
After making only 11 appearances in his first season at the club, he became a peripheral member of the squad. “It’s very frustrating because it’s not easy for a soccer player to be injured,” he told the English sports press at the time.
Showing his potential
“It takes every player time to settle in at a new club, especially in a new country,” says Avi Cohen, now chairman of the Israel Professional Footballers Association. “Last season when he was injured I was worried he wouldn’t get past the difficult acclimatization stage, during which so many overseas players have failed to make the grade. But he believed in himself – if I didn’t believe in him, I wouldn’t have told him to go to England.”
Cohen returned from injury and earned his first start against Aston Villa in April this year, stealing the headlines with a vibrant performance and scoring a late equalizer for a vital point as his father watched from the stands.
The midfielder got his first team chance early this season, and has not looked back since. He cemented his place in Bolton’s first team with goals against Liverpool, Portsmouth and Birmingham, and his performances have made him the team’s surprise package so far this season, during which he has been injury-free and finally showing his potential, although Bolton are struggling in the league.
“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised – I’m just happy he’s doing well. He knows that he has the talent. Now he’s really got his foot in the door,” says Cohen Snr.
He adds a reality check, however: “Right now, he’s in the starting lineup, but he knows he could lose this position at any time, such is the competition for midfield places at the club.”
Cohen is one of 20 Israeli soccer players currently plying their wares on the pitches of Europe. In England, national team captain Yossi Benayoun is a star at Liverpool while central defender Tal Ben-Haim plays for Portsmouth.
The Spanish league – considered by many to be better than the English Premier League – features former Chelsea striker Ben Sahar (Espanyol), Guy Asulin (Barcelona), national team goalkeeper Dudu Aouate (Mallorca), Nes Zamir (Albacete) and promising youngster Nir Mansour of Real Madrid’s youth team.
The Belgian league contingent comprises Omer Golan, Avi Strul and Yoav Ziv (all of Lokeren), and Elyaniv Barda (Genk). Gal Alberman and Roberto Collauti play for the German powerhouse Borussia Monchengladbach, while Shimon Abuhatzira and Salim Toama are established team players at Greek club Larissa.
Zeev Haimovich plays in the Russian Premier League for Terek Grozny, Pini Balili is at Turkey’s Antalyaspor, Moshe Mishaelof plays for Apollon Limassol of Cyprus, and Eli Zizov is at Bulgaria’s Levski Sofia.
It hasn’t always been this way.
After Israel’s national team made its World Cup debut (and so far only appearance) in Mexico in 1970, a talented generation of players began to interest European clubs. During the 1970s, Shmulik Rosenthal played for Germany’s top team of that era, Borussia Moenchengladbach; Mordechai Spiegler and Giora Spiegel starred in the French league for Paris Saint Germain, Lyon and Strasbourg; and Spiegler went on to play for the New York Cosmos alongside Pele and Franz Beckenbauer.
But the big breakthrough was the transfer of Avi Cohen in 1979 to Liverpool, at that time perhaps the best soccer team in the world. Just making it into the English league was an achievement, and it was amazing to be acquired by Liverpool, the European champions.
Settling in nicely
“I was the first foreign player ever to play for Liverpool,” he recalls. “They didn’t really know how to deal with a non-Brit. The whole experience was new to both of us – we all learned from it. In retrospect, if I wasn’t the first foreigner there I probably wouldn’t have returned home after two years.”
“Now every club has players and coaching staff from all over the world, and it’s much easier psychologically. First of all, communication is much easier. Tamir and I speak at least once a day. Thirty years ago I spoke to my parents once every couple of weeks, over a crackly line.”
“He’s very satisfied there, has settled down well and grown closer to the other players and manager. Tamir got married just before he left for England – just like I did 30 years ago,” adds Cohen.
Tamir and Yael Cohen live in nearby Manchester, where they are well connected to the local Jewish community and celebrate Jewish holidays with them. “Tal Ben-Haim and Yossi Benayoun are in regular contact. Yossi and Tamir are good friends, as are their wives. He’s encountered no problems of anti-Semitism or anti-Israeli feelings.”
Cohen Snr. says his son knows that now is a time for hard work, not wallowing in his recent successes. “He’s still early into his European career, and it’s too early to look ahead,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “For now, he has to cement his role in the team. As it looks right now, he has a long career ahead in England.”