It’s One of the Greatest Comebacks in English Soccer History, and It’s Being Led by an Israeli Arab and an Israeli Jew
If Israeli players are a rare site in the upper echelons of European soccer – at least when compared with the number of Argentinians, Dutch, Brazilians, Germans and other nationalities who pepper the continent’s finest teams – an Israeli duo is virtually unknown. But when the English soccer season begins towards the end of August, two of Israel’s finest exports, Tomer Hemed and Beram Kayal, will make their debuts in the coveted Premier League, wearing the colors of newly-promoted Brighton and Hove Albion.
Combine the story of Hemed and Kayal’s friendship, which stretches back to their time as youth players in the Israeli port city of Haifa, with Brighton’s imminent arrival in England’s top flight after an absence since 1983 – a miserable season which saw them sink into soccer’s second tier and lose the prestigious FA Cup Final to Manchester United, followed by almost three decades living with the shadow of bankruptcy over the club – and you have enough plot lines for a mini-series.
For Hemed, now 30, and Kayal, who is 29, the story begins in the youth system of Maccabi Haifa. Both played in Haifa’s youth team, with Kayal spending a successful career in Israeli soccer entirely with the club. Hemed spent a few seasons on loan to other clubs in Israel, returning to Maccabi Haifa for their championship winning 2010-11 season, during which he delighted the Haifa faithful with a tally of 18 goals.
After that, the glamor of European soccer came calling for both players. Kayal headed for the venerable Glasgow Celtic in Scotland, while Hemed went to Spain and La Liga, playing for both Almeria and Majorca.
Hemed reflected on his experience thus far in an interview with The Algemeiner. “For Israeli players, it’s not easy to come and play in the big leagues, in places like Spain, England and Germany,” Hemed said.
“We had a few who succeeded,” he continued, reeling off a list of Israeli players who made their careers in the Premier League, two of whom – Yossi Benayoun and Tal Ben-Haim – played for 13 different clubs between them.
In soccer, such restless wandering is often a sign that a player is struggling to make the starting line-up. But Hemed and Kayal have become familiar figures in Brighton’s first team for the last two seasons. In 2015-16, Kayal, a midfielder, was named the club’s player of the year, while Hemed, a striker, overcame a difficult start to crown the season as Brighton’s top scorer, with 18 goals.
This year, as Brighton – a festive town on England’s south coast – achieved the promotion denied them at the final hurdle the year before, Hemed netted 14 goals. Kayal played a smaller role in the campaign, having spent the months of October until January on the sidelines with a nasty ankle injury. With the promotion celebrations out of the way, neither player, Hemed made clear, is fazed by the prospect of the Premier League.
“Me and Beram grew up together in Maccabi Haifa, but before we achieved the promotion with Brighton to the Premier League, we’d gained a lot of experience,” Hemed explained. “When Beram was with Celtic, he played in the UEFA Champions League (Europe’s most important club competition, which brings together the top-ranking teams from the domestic soccer leagues.) I played in Spain, in La Liga.”
Hemed has tremendous faith in Brighton’s ability to weather the most punishing aspect of European soccer – the combined relegation-and-promotion process at the end of each season, through which the three worst-performing teams are sent down to a lower league, just as the three best-performing teams from that same league pass them on the way up. It certainly looks much rosier when you recall that twenty years ago, Brighton were forced to sell their ground, facing on top the prospect of having to abandon professional soccer altogether because of their financial crisis.
“When I came to Brighton, the team had just finished the season almost in the relegation zone,” Hemed said. “I said in an interview, ‘I came here to go to the Premier League with Brighton.’ People thought I was crazy because of what had happened the season before, but then we almost achieved promotion in my first season. So this season, we were ready, we showed how strong we are, and we got the promotion with four games to spare.”
Hemed has warm words for Brighton’s manager, Chris Hughton, and the club’s technical staff, putting the team’s success down to “their good work.” And he is candid about what Brighton’s ambitions should be in the forthcoming season, which will see the side travel to the likes of formidable opponents, among them Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United – the sorts of fixtures that will doubtless lead the crueler soccer pundits to predict Brighton’s swift return to the second tier.
“I think in the end we need to look at the teams that came up from the Championship (the name of England’s second tier league) that are similar to us,” Hemed observed. “Teams like Burnley, no-one thought they can stay there, but they did. We need to play the best we can against the biggest teams, but we also need to be realistic and play our best against the clubs towards the bottom of the league table. The aim is to stay in the Premier League for as long as we can.”
On the field and off it, Hemed has expressed an uncomplicated pride in being Israeli. Interest in his friendship with Kayal has been heightened by the fact that one is a Jew and that the other is an Arab. In an interview with The Guardian shortly after he signed for Brighton in 2015, Hemed said, “In Maccabi Haifa, there are many Israeli Arab players. There is a good feeling. You don’t feel something weird.” Brighton’s decision to sign him, he said, was partly sparked by Kayal, who “told the people here…good things about me,” Hemed recounted.
Asked whether he regarded himself as flying the flag for Israeli soccer on the European stage, Hemed answered: “I think maybe. Because we don’t have a lot of Israeli players, so all the players who are there are proud to represent our country, and to compete against the biggest players and the biggest teams.”
Since moving to Brighton, Hemed has forged close links with the local Jewish community, many of whom delight in seeing him take to the field at home matches with a haircut that sports a Star of David. I asked him if it was true that he’s a regular in synagogue.
“I try to do what I can,” Hemed said. “To bring kosher meat from London, to go to the synagogue on Friday night if we are playing at home. I’m happy that we have a big Jewish community in Brighton.”
Hemed recalled that the general joy over Brighton’s promotion was heightened in the Jewish community, as Tony Bloom – who purchased the club in 2011 and turned its fortunes around – and his family are members of the synagogue. “The whole city was excited. Everyone in the synagogue supports the team so it makes me happy to go there. In the stadium you can spot a lot of Israeli flags, which is great to see.”
I asked Hemed whether some of the success that he and Kayal have enjoyed might rub off onto the Israeli national side. He was realistic about the slim chances of Israel making it to the 2018 World Cup, out of a qualifying group that contains Spain and Italy. Nevertheless, Hemed said that the Israeli team is committed to seeing out the qualifying rounds with as much success as possible – “that will give us a push for the qualifiers next time.”
The last time Israel played in a World Cup was in 1970, when they failed to get past the group stage in Mexico that year. “My dream is to be one of the players that will get to the World Cup,” Hemed said. “We see around us many national teams that before a few years, no-one thought they could do it, and they did do it. We need to believe always.”