Israel’s teen secret dazzles on his debut

By Simon Griver, March 28, 2008
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Barcelona’s Gai Assulin became the first 16-year-old to play for Israel after coming on as a 78th minute substitute in Wednesday night’s 1-0 friendly win over Chile in a friendly international at Ramat Gan.

He replaced the captain, Liverpool’s Yossi Benayoun, who had scored the only goal of the game in the 30th minute from a quickly taken free kick, which surprised the Chileans who were still arranging their wall.

In the short time he was on the pitch, Assulin impressed the crowd with several dazzling runs. On one occasion he shimmied past one Chilean defender before being fouled by the next.

Assulin, who turns 17 on April 9, beats the previous record held by Ben Sahar who made his international debut for Israel last year when he was 17 and a half.

“I’m very happy to have the opportunity to represent my country,” said Assulin, “I hope I can prove myself on the pitch as worthy of receiving more chances to wear the national team shirt.”

JC Sport can reveal that the Netanya-born attacking midfielder’s call-up came as no surprise to the player. There have been ongoing negotiations between Israel FA representatives and Assulin’s father Eli amid concerns that the Barcelona starlet might refuse to represent Israel. Assulin, who was granted Spanish residency status last year, is about to receive citizenship and has also attracted attention from the Spanish Under 17 team. Moreover, the player’s parents have stated that he would not be returning to Israel to perform his military duty, something which in the past would have disqualified him from playing for Israel.

But the new law, often called the Sahar Law, which has already passed a first reading and the committee stages of the Knesset and is expected to be enacted before the summer, has changed the situation for Assulin. Under the law prodigious sporting talents like Assulin and Sahar will be excused military duty if they perform community work in Jewish institutions where they live.

Tipped by many to become the greatest player Isael has produced, Assulin is a product of Israeli schoolboy team Betar Tobruk in Netanya. He moved to Barcelona in 2003 and has risen through the ranks of the La Liga outfit. He currently plays in the reserve team in Spain’s third division. By mere coincidence, Assulin is the first player to represent his country before making a full league debut since his national manager, Dror Kashtan, did in 1962.

He has made several appearances for Barcelona’s first team in the Catalan Cup and his style of play is often compared to Arsenal midfield star Cesc Fabregas.

It may have been more logical for Assulin to make his national debut in one of Israel’s younger national teams but by selecting him for the Chile match, Dror Kashtan has let the teenager know that he is in his plans for the World Cup 2010 qualifying campaign which starts in September. But Israel will not yet be fully assured of Assulin’s services in the future if Spain make overtures. Wherever he ends up though, Fifa sometimes allows teenage players teenage to change their allegiance on the grounds that they were not mature enough to decide on their national identity.

With several Premier League clubs also interested in the prodigy, whose agent is Pini Zahavi, it should be known that he has a three-year agreement with Barcelona — not a contract as he is only a minor — with a 30 million Euro buy-out clause if he moves to another club. But it is doubtful whether such agreements have any legal validity because clubs cannot bind minors.

Israel Under 17s made a flying start in the Elite Round of the Uefa Championships. The host team, who must finish top in the round robin tournament to advance to the eight-team finals in Turkey in May, claimed a 3-1 victory over 2006 champions Russia on Tuesday.

Israel were scheduled to meet France yesterday.

    Last updated: 2:45pm, June 3 2008