There are very few Israeli soccer players who have made an impact for an extended period of time on the European stage. One of them however is Lior Refaelov who has been plying his trade in Belgium since 2011 when he signed with Club Brugge. Having now been playing outside of Israel for his 8th season, the Or Akiva native is one of Belgium’s most well known players and one who is respected throughout the country and Jupiler League.
After seven extremely successful seasons with Brugge, Refaelov joined Royal Antwerp this past summer and recently signed a contract extension to stay with the club until the end of the 2021 campaign. Sitting in a Kosher restaurant right in the heart of the world famous Diamond District, the now 33-year old looks back at his illustrious career and how the sport of soccer was always his calling and part of him as a child.
“I didn’t choose to play soccer, it was always something that was part of me. As long as I can remember I had a ball with me and I was playing soccer whether it was at school or in my neighborhood. I watched tons of soccer on TV as well.”
There were many great players to whom Refaelov could look up to and emulate he explained, “I loved to watch the Brazilian Ronaldo, Zidane Zidane and also Ronaldinho. As for Israeli players, I looked up to Eyal Berkovic and Haim Revivo who at the time were the top two Sabras playing abroad, both of whom were very successful during my childhood. I really enjoyed watching them play.”
Growing up through the ranks is always challenging for any child but in most cases the cream rises to the top. “When I was growing up in Or Akiva I played indoor soccer for the local Maccabi team until the age of 13. I then moved to Maccabi Haifa after they had seen me at various tournaments. Haifa was a club that I respected and looked up to as a child and I was thrilled to be able to join the club as it was the realization of a childhood dream. I was promoted to Haifa’s First Team when I was 17 years old which proved to me that every time I had placed a goal in front of me I was able to achieve it.”
Having a supportive family is always critical in a player’s success. “My father always supported me and pushed me to play soccer while my mother wanted to make sure that I got a proper education and would be able to earn a living a live a good life. Today things are a lot different than they were back then as sports have turned into a very professional field. Athletes from all disciplines put a lot of hard work in and can be rewarded financially. Now that I am a father and I have children, I make sure that they are good people, modest, fine students and have good values.”
After having won his second Israel Premier League title with Maccabi Haifa in 2008/09, Refaelov and the Greens advanced to the Group Stages of the UEFA Champions League, “As a child this was something you dreamed about. To advance to the group stages of the Champions League is the peak of a soccer players career. It’s something that you can really reflect on that you made it to this point. There is nothing that can be compared to with the experience of playing in the Champions League.”
Refaelov took home his 3rd Israel league title in 2010/11 and was also named the league’s Player of the Season which prompted a move outside of Israel’s borders to Belgium and Club Brugge, one of the premier club’s in the Jupiler League. Many players from around the world use this league as a springboard to bigger European competition, but that was not the case for the winger who has settled down nicely, “I never thought that I would be in Belgium for so long, I began here in 2011 and now it’s 2019, 8 years. I spent seven terrific seasons with Club Brugge and enjoyed every single minute and now I’m with Royal Antwerp which has made life a bit easier. There are so many Jewish people and Israelis in the city as well kosher restaurants and kosher supermarkets. It’s much easier for my wife and children as now they are in Jewish day school which we didn’t have in Brugge. They are learning about Israel, our people and the holidays which they weren’t able to do beforehand in the local schools in Brugge. It’s made life much easier and more comfortable.”
March 22, 2015 will be a night Refaelov will never forget. Club Brugge were playing in the Belgian Cup final against Anderlecht and were looking to take home a piece of hardware for the first time in 8 years. With their backs against the wall late in second half injury time Refealov scored a magical volley strike to send the Brugge fans into delirium and capture the trophy. “This was perhaps the biggest moment of my career. The Belgian Cup against a huge rival like Anderlecht. We were winning the whole game and then they drew even in the 89th minute. To be able to score a 92nd minute winner in front of over 50,000 fans is like a movie with a good ending. To be in the right place at the right time and to score on a volley from the air with my left foot, it’s as if everything went just as planned. It’s an experience that I’ll never forget.”
Living abroad presents its challenges for an Israeli athlete who longs for his home country. It also becomes a bit more demanding when there is a family in the equation as well. “My children were born in Belgium and we live here for now, but of course we miss Israel and the atmosphere as well. I certainly want to return to live in Israel and we always make sure that we head back a couple of times a year when there is a break. My wife misses Israel as well because she is here in Belgium for me and supports me as I make a living. She is helping me realize my dreams and reach my goals, but on a day to day basis it’s tougher for her as she is running the household and cares for the children because I am at training sessions of playing a game. She misses her friends and family a lot.”
Refaelov has put on the Senior Israel National Team jersey on 40 occasions and has scored 6 goals. It’s a responsibility that he doesn’t take lightly and understands what it means to have the opportunity to do so, “There’s no bigger honor for any athlete than to represent their country. We do it unconditionally and receive nothing in return, just the ultimate privilege to do so. That’s the biggest honor for me and it was a dream of mine to do so. I’m happy that I’ve had that opportunity.”
Part of being an Israeli in a foreign country means one has to be able to represent the country in the best way possible. Of course, that in itself presents plenty of challenges along the way as most players and teammates Refaelov comes in contact with really don’t understand what Israel really is all about, “I always feel that I am like an ambassador for Israel. I’m always explaining to my teammates about what Israel is really like and what the Arab-Israeli conflict is. I try to educate them as to what is really going on because the media in Europe doesn’t reflect the true reality of what goes on in Israel. I’m always trying to show people what an Israeli is whether it’s in the locker room, with the fans or on the street. I’m always trying to represent Israel the best way that I can. I was born in Israel and Israel is my country. At the end of the day we only have one country and those of us who are in the Diaspora are obligated to do the most to make sure people have only good things to say about our country, Israel.”