Numbers Ten through Seven

(plus an Honorable Mention)

In this first of a three-part series, we’ll take a look at numbers ten through seven on the list of the Top Ten moments in Israeli sports history, plus throw in an extra one as an honorable mention. In Part Two, we’ll reveal six through three, and in Part Three we’ll showcase the top two moments in the history of Israeli sports.

Honorable Mention: Yossi Benayoun signs with Liverpool, 2007 

Yossi Benayoun’s climb to the English Premier League and the pitch at Anfield began in the most unlikely of places - Dimona. During his time in the Israeli youth system, he played for Hapoel Beer Sheva, but by the time he was 15, Benayoun had already been targeted Yossi Benayoun on the football/soccer fieldby Ajax, the famed club in Amsterdam, for their youth academy and offered his first professional contract. Not into the idea of life in the Netherlands, though, Benayoun returned to Israel and quickly rose to stardom in the Ligat Ha’al (Israeli Premier League) when he signed with Maccabi Haifa and helped lead them to back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002.

Benayoun’s move to Racing Santander in 2002 and subsequent seasons in Spain paved the way for his signing with Premier League side West Ham United in 2005, but Benayoun’s move to Liverpool the next season began a three-year stretch in which he regularly took the pitch for one of Europe’s top clubs. His Liverpool career was highlighted by a game-winning goal in a Champions League fixture against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in 2009, and also by his feat of scoring hat tricks in the Premier League, the Champions League, and the FA Cup. He is, in fact, the only player in history to score that trifecta.

Benayoun signed with Chelsea in 2010, but found it challenging to crack the starting 11, which led to a loan to Arsenal, followed by stints with West Ham and QPR before coming home to Maccabi Haifa in 2014 for two years. More recently, he took a two-year turn with Maccabi Tel Aviv, played a season for Beitar Yerushalayim, and now, in a somewhat melancholy development, continues to ply his trade for Maccabi Petach Tikvah. Now 37, the end of his career is in sight, and while Eran Zahavi has rightly claimed the title of the most prolific Israeli player of this generation, Benayoun certainly dominated the last one.

Thanks for the memories, Yossi.

Number Ten: Alexsandr Averbukh Wins the European Championships in Pole Vault, 2002

It is a long and winding road from Irktusk, Siberia, to the Land of Israel, but it’s a journey that Alex Averbukh was happy to take. Born in the frigid eastern reaches of the former Soviet Union in 1974, Averbukh was a prolific decathlete for Russia in the 1990s, Alexsandr Averbukh pole vaultingincluding being crowned the Russian national champion in the event In 1997. Prior to that, his life changed when he was 21 and met his grandfather for the first time…and learned that he was Jewish. The new awareness of his Jewish roots led him to explore the possibility of moving to Israel, and in 1999 he made Aliyah. Wasting no time, he immediately set the Israeli national record in pole vault and decided to focus solely on that discipline, quickly shooting up the ranks and winning the bronze medal at the 1999 World Championships in Spain.

So began a multi-year stretch in which Averbukh was one of the top-rated pole vaulters in the world. He won a gold medal at the 2000 European Indoor Championships, a silver medal at the 2001 worlds, but his most meaningful victory came in 2002 at the European Championships in Munich. In a competition that took place almost exactly 30 years after the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, Averbukh struck gold at the European Championships, the first gold medal ever for Israel at that competition. He competed in the Sydney, Athens, and Beijing Olympics, and remains the most decorated track and field athlete in Israel’s history.

Following Munich, Averbukh climbed to the #1 ranking in the world by July of 2003, and continued to compete at a world-class level, including winning European gold again in 2006 in Sweden until his retirement from competition in 2009. His personal best of 5.93 meters (15 feet, 5 ½ inches), remains the Israeli national record. A veteran of three Olympic games (2000, 2004, and 2008), Averbukh’s legacy as one of Israel’s greatest sportsmen is assured.

Number Nine: Team Israel Wows the World at the World Baseball Classic, 2017

The list of teams in the 2017 World Baseball Classic made sense for a while: United States, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, China, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela, Taiwan… and then you got to Israel.

Really?

But the joke was on the world, as Team Israel showed up in South Korea with a talented roster of American Jewish baseball players and opened up the competition by winning their group. The team took the opening round by storm, defeating South Korea 2-1, Chinese Taipei 15-7, and the Netherlands 4-2. Led by the likes of Ryan Lavarnway, Nate Freiman, Josh Zeid, and Jason Marquis, they played fearless and passionate baseball and quickly made the world realize that they were not there just for ceremonial purposes.

Brimming with confidence and having quickly become the darlings of the competition, Team Israel headed to Round 2 in the Tokyo Dome and kept rolling, defeating Cuba (Cuba!!!) 4-1 to keep their perfect record intact. But in a painful proof of the old adage that baseball can be a cruel and unforgiving sport, their luck changed pretty quickly, and a pair of losses to the Netherlands (12-2) and Japan (8-3) ended their magical run, sending them home from the WBC.

Remarkably, all of this took place in the span of nine days, as the opening win over South Korea took place on March 6, 2017, and the final loss against Japan happened on March 15; those nine days changed the term “Israeli baseball” forever. Social media accounts the Jewish-Israeli-Zionist world over were littered with Team Israel posts, the video of Hatikvah and the Israeli flag in the Tokyo Dome went viral, and for a while Team Israel were the most talked-about baseball team on the planet.

Number Eight: Hapoel Tel Aviv defeats Chelsea in the UEFA Cup, 2001

In the fall of 2001, the soccer world looked at the second round UEFA Cup fixture between Hapoel Tel Aviv (who qualified for the competition thanks to their second-place league finish the previous season) and Chelsea, a perennial Premier League frontrunner, and probably yawned. After all, Israeli soccer teams had a history littered with underwhelming showings in both the Champions League and Europa League (formerly the UEFA Cup), and why would this be any different?

Deep into the first leg at Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv, though, Shimon Gershon converted a penalty in the 87th minute, awarded when Chelsea’s John Terry handled a ball in the box, and seven minutes later Sergei Kleshenko nodded home a cross from Yossi Abuksis to give Hapoel a 2-0 lead heading into the return leg in London.

Two weeks later at Stamford Bridge, Milan Osterc’s goal in the 35th minute gave Hapoel a precious away goal and a 3-0 lead on aggregate. Chelsea’s equalizer from Gianfraco Zola in the 64th minute was no consolation for manager Claudio Ranieri and the Blues, who were eliminated 3-1 by the Israeli side. It was an historic result for an Israeli club on the world stage, and an emphatic result against one of the world’s most storied clubs.

Hapoel’s Cinderella run through the competition continued in Round 3 with a 3-1 win over Locomotiv Moscow, and kept going in Round 4 with a 2-1 win over Parma. But they came up just short against AC Milan in the quarterfinals, losing 2-1 and ending a magical run through Europe.

Number Seven: Daniel Samohin wins the gold medal at the Junior World Figure Skating Championships, 2016

Daniel Samohin certainly had a strong athletic pedigree - his father was a Russian Olympic skater and his mother was a rhythmic gymnast - but the words “Israeli” and “figure skater” are not usually ones that make one dream of gold medals. For Samohin, born in Tel Aviv in 1998, his journey to figure skating gold began once he moved to San Diego and laced up skates for the first time as a five-year-old.

Daniel Samohin receiving his score at the 2018 World Figure Skating ChampionshipsSamohin’s career on the world stage has been marked by his fearlessness and daring, with a measure of inconsistency thrown in. He burst onto the scene in 2013, earning a bronze medal at a Junior Grand Prix event in Mexico, and in the 2014 junior worlds earned an eighth place finish.

All of these events were just a prelude for one of the most dramatic performances ever at the world juniors. After Samohin failed to convert a triple flip in his short program, he sat in ninth place heading into the free skate. All he did next was to land not one, but two quadruple jumps (a salchow and and a toe jump) in addition to a triple axel to leap into first place, set the world record for the free program at the junior level, and claim the gold medal for himself and for Israel - a truly astonishing result.

Following his gold at the junior worlds, Samohin took to the senior circuit, where he competed all over the world on the Grand Prix circuit and earned a spot in Pyeongchang. While his performance at the Olympics was not medal-worthy, his score of 251.44 was good for 13th place. The best may be yet to come for one of the only men to ever land five quad jumps in a single competition.