By Paz Bassra
Born: 02/04/1972, Regba, Israel
Clubs: Maccabi Haifa, Southampton (loan), West Ham United, Celtic, Blackburn Rovers (loan), Manchester City, Portsmouth, Maccabi Tel Aviv
International: Israel (82 caps, 14 goals)
Arguably Israel’s greatest ever player; the jewel in the Israeli Football Hall of Fame’s crown. His Hebrew nickname Ho-Kasem literally translates as ‘The Magician’, which is befitting of this midfield maestro. Here is the story of the man who the Israeli public consider to be their 94th greatest ever child.
A member of Maccabi Haifa’s academy from the age of 10, Berkovic spent 7 seasons in the first team from 1989 until 1996. 25 goals in 128 appearances was a great return but his game was all about assists. His creative contributions resulted in 2 league titles and 3 State Cups; the 1st league victory coincided with a cup triumph which resulted in a domestic double in 1991. His performances in the 2nd league title conquest saw him recognised as the Most Valuable Player in the Israeli Premier League for the 1993/4 season.
All good sides come to an end, and with Berkovic looking to move along, it made perfect sense to put him in the shop window of the bigger leagues. He spent the 1996/7 season on loan at struggling Southampton. He joined Le Tissier in the one of the laziest midfields in history. But that leisurely midfield famously defeated the double-winning Manchester United of the previous season 6-3, with 2 goals and 3 assist from Berkovic.
His performances in helping Southampton avoid relegation caught the eye of our wheeler-dealer friend ‘Appy ‘Arry Redknapp. And even though he had Sandra Redknapp, who we all know is better finisher than Darren Bent, he managed put up £1.75m for the idle Israeli (I don’t know how much Redknapp pocketed). He instantly became a Hammers favourite by scoring the decisive goal in a 2-1 win over Spurs on debut. His assists fed John Hartson’s hot streak but the two didn’t get along on the pitch. In a famous training ground bust-up Hartson clattered Berkovic, Berkovic punched him in leg, Hartson studded him in the head, and it was all caught on camera. Hartson was fined £20,000 and given a 3-match ban. Berkovic, luckily, kept the creative side of his brain intact.
Berkovic had 12 goals in 79 appearances across all competitions for the Claret and Blues but the incident with Hartson forced his departure to John Barnes’ Celtic for £5.75m in 1999. Berkovic scored 10 goals in 35 appearances but Martin O’Neill came in and didn’t fancy the flair icon. Berkovic never won over the fans at Parkhead and after a short loan period at Blackburn he moved to Manchester City as he proved he could still do it at Division 1 level.
He got injured early at City right at the beginning of the 2001/2, leading to the signing of another Flair Icon Ali Benarbia, but once he was back City romped to promotion; Benarbia and Berkovic providing the bullets for the Blue side of Manchester. City’s 2002/3 Premier League campaign saw Berkovic condense the story of his career into 6 months. He dismantled Manchester United again, as he did for Southampton, in a 3-1 victory scoring 2 goals. City, however, weren’t doing well and one of the playmakers had to go – it would be Benarbia. Berkovic ended up being voted the club’s player of the season by the club magazine. But it wasn’t all pretty as Berkovic fell out with some of the club’s supporters after making a throat-slitting gesture at a female fan. He then fell out with Kevin Keegan. He moved to Portsmouth and unbelievably was part of a 4-2 demolition of City on his debut.
The war of words escalated with Keegan; Berkovic saying he was the best player at the club, that Keegan was ‘a big baby, and that he told Super Kev that he should be sacked to his face. He was reunited with ‘Appy ‘Arry at Pompey, and despite flashes of brilliance in Pompey’s fight for survival, he couldn’t hold down a regular place. In January 2005 he moved back to Israel to finish his career with Maccabi Tel Aviv.
It was the club’s centenary and they splashed out on big talent including Blessing Kaku and Giovani Rosso. But they failed to land any silverware. Berkovic went out with a whimper and unofficially retired without telling the club; just couldn’t be bothered to come back from a small foot and ankle injury.
He went into management and failed miserably after only 2 months at Maccabi Netanya; unsurprising considering his temperament and lack of application. However, when he was hot he was burning; even managing 14 goals in 82 caps for a struggling Israel. For all of his lack of application he never failed to turn up and perform for his country; he really earned that lofty position as the 94th greatest Israeli ever. That tactical genius Avram Grant, and Jabba the Hutt look-a-like, didn’t agree and consistently left Berkovic out of the World Cup 2006 qualifying campaign squads.
Berkovic will be remembered as a silky passer and confident finisher. But the tag of ‘mercurial’ will hang around his neck as a slur. The fact is that he never got that chance to shine for a ‘super club’ in the Champions League because of his attitude. But if you judge players on talent and how they perform considering the side surrounding them, then Berkovic made the teams he played for punch far above their weight.