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Friday Feature – Tomer Hemed, Israeli Star

Dov Halickman Photography

Tomer Hemed is arguably one of Israel’s top footballers playing abroad these days and is currently plying his trade for Brighton & Hove Albion in the English Football League Championship, one step below the Premier League. However, with Hemed on board this season, Brighton has its sights set to return to the first flight of English Football as the striker from Kiryat Tiv’on has already collected five goals in seven appearances since the beginning of the season.

The Sports Rabbi, Josh Halickman had a chance to catch up with Hemed prior to the Israel National Team’s pair of crucial qualifying matches against Cyprus this Saturday night in Jerusalem and in Belgium next Tuesday. Hemed talked about his illustrious career thus far as we went back in time to find out where his footballing roots began to sprout all the way to the present day.

“I thought about becoming a footballer when I was 8 years old and I was growing up in Kiryat Tiv’on. As a 13-year old I went to play in the Maccabi Haifa youth department and from there I made it to the first team.”

Hemed grew up in a family that was very much into sports, “I’m the youngest of four brothers and they have always been involved in sports. One played basketball and another was into water polo. When I was younger, I was very athletic and played a lot of sports including tennis, volleyball, basketball but it was football that I enjoyed most. My mother is originally from Poland and while my father was born in Israel, his family originally comes from Syria. So I’m half Ashkenazi and half Sephardi. However, they were very supportive of me and wanted to see me succeed as a footballer when I was growing up.”

His love for football was both as a participant and also as a fan, “Eyal Berkovich who played with Maccabi Haifa was my favorite player. I loved watching him on the pitch and when he went to play in Europe, I followed his every move and kept up with his progress.”

The young striker played his first team match for Maccabi Haifa in 2006 and appeared in 49 games overall for the Greens, but his massively successful breakout year was in 2010-11. That season, Haifa won the Israeli league title as Hemed chipped in with 13 goals and 5 assists while playing consistently match after match.

Even before his terrific championship year at Haifa, Hemed, who also played on loan at Maccabi Herzliya, Bnei Yehuda and Maccabi Ahi Nazareth began thinking about a career outside of Israel and went on a personal mission; to play in Europe in one of the top leagues, “At 18 years old I decided that my goal was to eventually play in Europe by the time I was 23 or 24 years old. In order to do that, I worked with a coach who helped me with the mental aspects of the game as well as a personal trainer, all with the common goal of improving to the level where I would succeed.”

Hemed would realize his dream of playing in Europe right after Haifa’s title season, moving to Spain to play for Mallorca, where in his first season he would go on to score 8 goals in 28 matches. The following year, the 1.83 meter goal scorer would have the chance to play alongside another striker, Mexican Giovani Dos Santos, “It was very interesting to play with such an amazing talent and player. Dos Santos had played with Barcelona and Tottenham and I enjoyed having the opportunity to play with him.”

After three years at Mallorca, Hemed would spend the 2014-15 season at Almeria, scoring eight goals in 35 appearances before moving onto England and Brighton & Hove Albion. After only a couple of months with the club, Hemed compared and contrasted the Spanish and English leagues, “In England the game is much more aggressive and intensive than in Spain, but every player has his own style of play and I very much enjoyed playing in Spain, while I’m also happy so far with my time in England.”

The club is owned by Tony Bloom, who is Jewish and extremely supportive of Hemed and Israel while the Jews of Brighton have strong ties as well, explained Hemed, “There is a Jewish community in Brighton with a very nice synagogue and many terrific people. The owner of the team is also Jewish and is very supportive of Israel which is great as well.”

However, Hemed’s greatest support and backbone comes from his wife Shunit, “We’ve been together since we were 18 years old and she always wants me to continue to improve. Shunit is the main reason why I have succeeded so far in my career and it’s because of her support that I am who I am and where I am today. There’s no question that my wife is the most influential person in my career and there has been no one that has helped me more than Shunit.”

Before Hemed heads out to his training session with the Israel National Team as they put the finishing touches on their final preparations before the pair of crucial UEFA Euro2016 matches, he has some strong and important words about Israel, “As someone who plays outside of Israel, it’s great to see the support for Israel from people around the world. It personally makes me so happy and I want thank everyone for being behind us and in our corner. It would be great for us to advance and it would be wonderful to be part of the celebrations. We are waiting for this moment where we can make the people proud of our accomplishments.”