Not many players can be seen as encapsulating the history of their country's football or count themselves as emblematic figures. However, Yossi Benayoun can. Having plied his trade in domestic football in Israel, Spain and England, the Israeli captain is still aiming high as he looks to enjoy his last few years on the pitch. "I'm nearing the end of my career but I still have goals that I want to achieve both as a player and a person," the 33-year-old, who is one cap away from equalling Arik Benado's record of 94 appearances for his country, told FIFA.com.
One of his main ambitions is to help Israel qualify for a major international competition. Eli Guttman's team are lying third in FIFA World Cup™ qualifying Group F, three points off first place and well in contention to qualify for Brazil 2014. "There's a long way to go but we have every chance," said the attacking midfielder, who has been without a club since his contract with Chelsea expired.
Born in Dimona in the heart of the Negev Desert, Benayoun thought that his career was taking off when he was selected to join the Ajax youth set-up at the age of 15. But although his family went with him, the skinny youngster failed to acclimatise to life in the Netherlands and decided to return home after just a few months. He signed with Hapoel Bee-Sheva before moving to Maccabi Haifa the following year, and soon became a star on the domestic scene. "My first real dream as a footballer was to play in the first division and to establish myself there," he said, smiling as he harked back to the two Israeli league titles he won in 2001 and 2002.
The path to a Bernabeu winner
With a number of clubs keeping an eye on him, Benayoun decided to give Europe another go and joined Racing Santander, a decision that turned out to be a wise one. "Playing in La Liga was an exceptional experience. There were very few Israelis playing there at the time," he said. He soon established himself as a lynchpin of a team in their annual battle against relegation. "We played good-quality attacking football," said Benayoun. "I had a lot of freedom to express myself out on the pitch and that helped me to progress."
This brought him to West Ham United in 2005, and after two good seasons in East London, he managed to fulfil his second dream, that of playing with one of the top Premiership clubs, namely Liverpool. "I'll never forget the first time I played at Anfield. The fans, the atmosphere, the players, it was magic," he said with another smile. "It was just reward for all the sacrifices that I had made."
For three seasons he was one of the main attacking forces in Rafael Benitez's team which even managed to create a real shock at the Bernabeu Stadium against Real Madrid. "I scored the winner in the first leg of a Champions League match there. It was a header as well. I didn't get many of those!" he recalled.
Challenges and dreams
After the Reds, Benayoun carried on living the Premiership dream, though his three years at Chelsea were less successful and featured loan spells at Arsenal and back at West Ham. He is now without a contract and exploring various avenues. "I've had approaches from teams in Europe and the United States. MLS could be an interesting experience," he said, adding that he has "enough energy left to carry on playing at the top level and help the national team to rise to the next challenge."
Speaking of which, Benayoun is very much the figurehead of an Israeli football scene which has been coming on in leaps and bounds on the international stage of late. "We're a tiny country but we're doing all we can to make a name for ourselves in European football," said the captain, who attributes the recent progress to hard work, plain and simple.
"Some of our clubs have been doing well in Europe and the national team can still qualify for the World Cup in Brazil. We're third in the group but only three points behind Portugal with a game in hand. It would be a dream come true to qualify for the World Cup again. The last time we made it was in 1970, which is a fair way back now."
He knows that it will not be easy, however. "On paper Portugal and Russia are better than us," he said, "but we're going all out to surprise them." And if Benayoun can steer his country to a FIFA World Cup final berth, then his place in Israeli footballing history will be assured once and for all.