The Kid from the Negev Desert

Yossi Benayoun's story is the most remarkable in the Premiership. He tells Jason Burt about his upbringing in one of the most desolate locations in Israel and how he has adjusted to life at West Ham after a breathless start
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The Independent Online

Aged nine and he was spotted as a footballing talent. Aged 11 and the talent was labelled a genius. By 13 his face appeared on the front of magazines in Israel.

With his father, Benayoun, always a slight, almost fragile figure, hitch-hiked to the training grounds of Hapoel Be'er Sheva, the only senior team in the Negev desert. The Negev is an extraordinary place. Desperate. "It's a normal life like anybody. My family still live there, in the desert," Benayoun protests before adding "It's a different life from England but it's my home. It's one of the smallest and poorest cities in Israel."

His hometown is Dimona, a place where families such as his, which emigrated from Morocco, were sent in the 1970s and '80s. It's also overshadowed by Israel's nuclear reactor, where many inhabitants worked, although Benayoun's father was, and still is, employed by the council.

"I was a football player from ever since I remember," Benayoun, sitting in West Ham United's training ground ahead of today's Premiership match against Arsenal, says. "My dream was to play in the Israeli Premier Division." Except bigger clubs came calling. Suddenly one of the biggest of all, Ajax, that Dutch footballing factory, wanted him. Benayoun was just 15 and he took all his family - his parents, his sisters, his brother - with him.

"It ripped my family," Benayoun says. "It was very hard, difficult. My girlfriend, Mirat (now his wife) was also just 15. It was just too hard for everyone." His little brother, in particular, pined for Israel. "It was just not the right time," Benayoun states.

Ajax clearly thought it was. Although things were not right, he thrived on the field. Top-scorer and "best player" of the youth team he was, having just turned 16, called in and offered a four-year contract as a first-team player. "But the day after I had to say 'sorry, I want to go back'," Benayoun explains. After just eight months he returned to live in the Negev.

"It has hard, especially for a family who had nothing," he says. "The money was important but there are lots of things which are more important. You have to be happy, if you are not then money doesn't matter."

His family had also been given cash by well-wishers back in Israel, to help them. "A lot of people," Benayoun says. "But when I went back I returned it."

There was, nevertheless, a problem. "There was a lot of criticism," Benayoun says. "The press in Israel, the journalists, are very hard. When I went back they wrote horrible things, saying I would never be a player, I would never be able to make it in Europe and didn't have the character. They just didn't understand."

When he had left for Ajax the stories had been very different. "Everyone in Israel loved and supported me," Benayoun says. "They liked the stories that I had nothing, my family had nothing, and I came out and had great success."

Benayoun has always been known as "The Kid" in Israel. He still is. "All the time, yes," he laughs. "I'm 25 and they call me 'The Kid' since I started. I started very young. I was in the Premier League in Israel at 17 and have been eight years in the national team. All the time it's 'The Kid, the Kid'. But they don't understand that now, I'm a father." He adds: "But I hope they still call me 'The Kid' when I'm retiring."

After Ajax, the Kid returned to train with Be'er Sheva. "I was there for one year," he says. "No one expected me to play, but I was put into the team and was the top-scorer and player of the year." It came down to the last day of the season. Despite Benayoun's brilliance and 15 goals, the team had to win their last game, and hope another result went for them, to avoid relegation.

In the last minute they were drawing. Then they won a penalty. "I had to take it," Benayoun says. "The other players were aged 29 to 32. It was a very experienced team but none of the other 10 wanted to take it. No one. And I tell you something - I missed. The goalkeeper saved it." But the rebound fell back to him and, coolly, The Kid chipped into the net. Chaos. "I ran and ran," Benayoun says. But it wasn't enough. "Yes," he says. "Unfortunately, in the other match, the other team scored in the last minute too and we went down."

There's a photograph of Benayoun taken after the game. It shows the tears, the distraught youthful face. It struck to the heart of Israel. They took The Kid back and loved him again.

He went to Maccabi Haifa. "A big team," Benayoun says. "But one that had not won the league for seven years." With him they were champions twice in four seasons and, twice, he was named Israel's footballer of the year again.

"It was a lot of pressure but I call it positive pressure," Benayoun, who did his three years national service during that time as well, says. "It was the pressure that every player wants. Since I started I wanted to be the best, to be the best in the national team, to be one of the leaders."

His club did well in Europe. They beat Paris St Germain twice, and performed beyond expectation. "People started to look at me again," Benayoun says. "I just had to make the right decision and this time the right decision was to leave. I always felt sure that I would get another chance in Europe and it came along."

This time it was to Spain, to the north and Racing Santander. "Everyone expected that we would go down to the Second Division," Benayoun says. "But we stayed up and I had a lot of good games." Few better than the eye-catching hat-trick he collected in Racing's 4-1 victory away to Deportivo La Coruña last April. It helped arrest the slide towards relegation but, after three years, and despite offers "from two or three clubs in Spain" Benayoun felt it was time to move on. "I wanted to try something else," he says. "And English football."

West Ham. Again people in Israel questioned his decision. "Everyone told me I was making a big mistake and that Bolton (who had also bid) were a bigger team," Benayoun says. "They think that because Bolton have done well in the last few years and are playing in Europe." They also have another Israeli, Tal Ben Haim.

"But when I make a decision I'm happy to stay with it until the end," Benayoun says. "If West Ham lose all their games and end up in the second division and Bolton go on and win the championship then I know that I still made the right decision. I'm determined. You can ask Mirat that - although after 10 years together we make decisions together, of course!"

He has clearly thought about why West Ham, even though newly-promoted, were the right club. "There's a good combination of young players plus two or three with a lot of experience," Benayoun says. "We try and play football and that's what the manager wants.

"I need that. I'm a player who needs the ball, needs to have a lot of contact with it, to feel it. Like you see I'm not so big and strong. When I decided to come to West Ham it was one of several choices but I knew about the history, that they try and play, and that it's important to them."

It helped West Ham's chances of securing Benayoun that he took testimony from another Israeli, Eyal Berkovic. "I spoke with Eyal," he says. "He played here for two years and I have a good relationship with him. He's one of my best friends and taught me everything I need to know. He told me that I had made the right decision, that I would enjoy it and the football, that it was not like other teams, like Bolton. Bolton are strong but they play long-ball."

There are similarities in style between the two Israelis. "That is perfect for me as he is one of the best players," Benayoun says. "The only difference is that I play closer to the goal, he's more deep lying. Like me he's not the biggest physically and when I came to England everyone thought my size would be a problem. But I believe in myself and I think I can make the weight up."

There have been other comparisons too. Many West Ham fans talk wistfully of Benayoun and Alan Devonshire - "they have told me he was a great player," the Israeli says - while another of such skill is Joe Cole. "A great player," Benayoun says. "But I've got a long way to prove myself and get close to their level."

The West Ham manager Alan Pardew has even mentioned, in terms of technical attributes, a likeness to Zinedine Zidane. Benayoun laughs at that one. "It's good for me personally and shows what he expects," he says, "but Zidane's the best in the world and I'm not even close. There is no comparison."

What is certain is the effect Benayoun has had on West Ham from the left-side of midfield - although Pardew is also keen to use him more centrally "as the brains of the attack", the eventual heir to 39-year-old Teddy Sheringham. Benayoun himself craves responsibility. "If you bring a player who has played in Spain for three years and you have spent a lot of money on him (£2.5m) he can't just come and be one of the 25 players in the squad," Benayoun says. "He has to do more. You expect more from him. It was important for me that I did things in that first game that showed them they had made a good decision. If you prove yourself it gives you power."

That first game was the home victory against Blackburn Rovers. "It wasn't a shock, I had expected something difficult," Benayoun says. "But I wasn't in the game for the first 20 minutes and I just couldn't get the air into my lungs. Everything was so fast, I couldn't breathe. Every touch I made was bad, every pass. I lost the first five or six balls. After that I said to myself 'look, take your breath. Play simple.' And after that I played better." So good that pundits named him man of the match.

He has collected others since as West Ham have made an encouraging, refreshing start to the campaign which will be tested today by Arsenal - an opponent that has Benayoun puffing out his cheeks and laughing. "Quick," he says. "Maybe too quick!"

But there's hope. "No one expected that after five games we would have 10 points," he says. "Personally I'm very happy, I'm enjoying it from every point of view but know that I have to keep playing like this." Indeed Benayoun admits that he expected it to be tougher. "Before I came here I thought it would be more difficult," he says. "Everyone knows it's hard to move to another country, to settle in, there's always a lot to learn." It helps that he has found a home for his family and a nursery for his little girl.

Still the football can be too frantic. "I like English and Spanish football but here everything is faster, more aggressive," Benayoun says. "Sometimes it's too fast. So fast that you lose the ball. But it's more enjoyable and, of course, the supporters. There is nothing to compare to them. They live their football. They show their appreciation."

There is also a greater appreciation of Israeli footballers. Benayoun may well be joined at West Ham by Yaniv Katan, a strong young striker, while scouts have suddenly descended.

Another image comes into view. It's the Ramat Gan Stadium in Tel Aviv last March during Israel's World Cup campaign - a campaign which could see them reaching Germany next year. They are playing the Republic of Ireland and Benayoun goes into the dressing room.

"They gave me this T-shirt and I looked at it and thought 'how lucky, it's got my number. Number 15'," he says. "Everyone started to laugh." The reason why soon became apparent. Out in the stadium everyone was wearing blue T-shirts with Benayoun's number 15 on the back. All 50,000 of them. It was their way of saying thank you to The Kid for the excitement, the hope, the pride he had given to Israeli football.

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