Football: Berkovic fears humiliation at home

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The Independent Online
EYAL BERKOVIC conceded yesterday that a Uefa Cup defeat for Celtic at the hands of Hapoel Tel Aviv would be a personal humiliation.

Celtic's Israeli international midfielder, a pounds 5.75m record signing from West Ham, will be absent from tomorrow's home leg at Parkhead with a hamstring strain, but is desperate to make his mark in the return at the Bloomfield Stadium.

As a central figure in the national side, he knows that all Israel will be watching his performance in a fortnight, and fears losing face in his homeland if Celtic exit the competition at the first-round stage.

Celtic's head coach, John Barnes, revealed after the European draw was made that he had been forced to calm Berkovic down because he was so excited by the tie. But given time to reflect, the player is now more circumspect.

"I'm not so happy with this draw," he said. "I'd prefer to be playing another team. Playing against Israeli players will be strange and if we lose people will ask why I'm at Celtic. In football anything can happen and it won't be an easy game. It would be a huge embarrassment to lose to Tel Aviv.

"It will be emotional for me in a fortnight's time. It'll be strange as I'll be the first Israeli player to come back with another European club to play in Israel. Israel is a small country and when I played at Maccabi Haifa I was only an hour away from Tel Aviv. It's a country where everyone knows each other. All my friends and family will be there.

"As soon as I arrived at Celtic there was huge interest in them in Israel. Yesterday on Israeli television they showed a three-hour documentary about Celtic Football Club. In addition, every Celtic game is shown live on Israel's Channel Five, who have bought the rights.

"There will be fans cheering for me in Tel Aviv but not to the point where they want me to do well at their team's expense. They'll still love their team before loving me."

Berkovic recognises that Tel Aviv have the talent to make life difficult in a fortnight - which is why he views it as essential that Celtic maximise home advantage against a team he feels will travel badly.

"People have spoken about Tel Aviv as if they are a Mickey Mouse team, but the Israeli national side are much-improved and a lot of clubs, including Tel Aviv, have spent money on good players in recent times," he said.

"I think if there is still a chance for Tel Aviv in Israel it will be very difficult as we'll be confronted by a noisy full house of 20,000 in what will be exceptionally hot conditions.

"That's why finishing the job in Glasgow is a must, a 2-0 win would be a good result for us. Israeli players generally struggle on their travels but it'll be a very different game in Tel Aviv."

Celtic have agreed to sponsor the Glasgow Maccabi Sports Club to restore a long-standing bond with the country's Jewish community prior to the Uefa Cup tie.

The Celtic Charity Fund supported the club, who encourage the development of young players, after being told of a game against Real Madrid on 10 September 1962 staged jointly with the Jewish Community which raised money for refugees.

The Celtic chief executive, Allan MacDonald, said: "Celtic is delighted to support the Glasgow Maccabi Sports Club as a very clear reminder of the reasons why Celtic was founded and continues to flourish."

The decision was backed by Berkovic, who said: "The match in 1962 was mentioned to me when I was about to sign for Celtic. I am proud to represent a club with such a history and feeling for people of all faiths and backgrounds."

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