Eighty different nationalities, everything from Brazilian to Ukrainian, have been represented in the A-League since it launched in 2005 but no Israeli had ever graced the competition until late last year when Tomer Hemed joined Wellington Phoenix.
Now the Kiryat Tiv'on-born striker wants to encourage more of his countrymen to make the move down under and come to the A-League. Former English Premier League forward Hemed has proved a hit with the Phoenix, bagging five goals and two assists in 15 appearances in his debut season.
The 34-year-old, who is living in Sydney while playing for the currently Wollongong-based club, says he is enjoying his time in Australia and would love to see more Israeli footballers make the transition.
“It would be an amazing experience,” he told The World Game.
“Fortunately in Israel or in Europe they’re not really following the league here but I think, for me as well, I found a very competitive league, very attractive, a lot of goals and a lot of good games. I said maybe now that I’m here they’re showing the games in Israel, they’re live on TV and everyone can see the games.
“Now there’s a place for the Israeli players to come to and I’m doing well, so maybe it’s now easier for Israeli players to come here… I’m sure some [Israeli] players can come here and do well.
“So it would be interesting to see more Israeli players come here in the future, if that happened it would be great to know that I was the one who opened the door for them.”
Hemed spent the past five years in the UK, first with Brighton & Hove Albion, and then with Queens Park Rangers and Charlton Athletic. But with the start of the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020, a new opportunity in the Antipodes beckoned for him.
“When I was in my last season at Charlton I knew my contract was finishing with Brighton,” he said.
“Then in the summer I was free and then Covid hit in all of Europe, and after almost 10 years in Europe, I was open to hear about any options. Then the option came to come to Australia, to live in Sydney, to get the opportunity to live in one of the most amazing places in the world.
“So for the family it was good, football-wise it’s something that no one has done before – I’m the first Israeli player in the A-League and it’s something that no one has really done before or had the chance to. So it’s something special, the chance to be the first one and to try and come here and experience it.
“Now in Europe with the Covid all the cities and countries are locked down, but here it’s normal and maybe it’s the best timing to go to Australia and go for one year and after that see what happens. Because I could have stayed in England, or go back to Spain, but I think from everything going on this was the best option for me.
“In the end football is the most important thing for us, so I carry the expectation and to have a good season with the team, and to score goals. Now I’m happy that’s happened. It’s for one year, soon we’ll finish the season and then we’ll see what’s next.
Hemed started his career at Maccabi Haifa, one of the biggest clubs in his homeland, in 2005 and went on to play in both Spain’s La Liga and then in the Premier League. Capped 37 times for Israel, the striker is complimentary of both the A-League and the Australian way of life.
“It’s a very nice place to come, it’s the first time I’ve had the chance to come to Australia so it’s special,” the former Mallorca and America marksman said.
“We’ve found it a very good place for my family – my wife, the kids are really happy here. The people here are very nice. We’ve had the opportunity to live in Sydney, so it’s something that’s very good for us with the Jewish community. That’s helped us to settle. So we’ve really enjoyed it.
“I’ve played in Spain and in the Premier League, and when you’re coming from those leagues of course they are the top leagues in the world so whenever you go it’s not going to be the same. But if you look at the A-League it’s a very interesting league, it’s very competitive, you can see that anyone can beat anyone.
“There is no really easy games here. You can see the style of game is quite physical, players are quite strong, they’re running a lot. It’s different from where I used to play before but it’s a very good league.
“The facilities are good, the fans coming to the game… so I think it’s very nice I’ve had the opportunity to come and be part of it.”
Hemed also received glowing endorsements about the A-League and Australia from two former club teammates in Socceroos Mat Ryan and Massimo Luongo.
“When the option came I straight away with Maty Ryan and Massimo Luongo, both of them are really good friends of mine,” he admitted.
“We are close and I could speak with them and ask them and they told me it would be an amazing experience for me, for the family. They helped me to choose an area of where its good to live, things like that.
“So it always helps when you have someone who knows the place before.”
Wellington endured a difficult start to the 2020-2021 season, winning just one of their first eight games, but the Kiwi outfit has turned things around and is unbeaten in their past five fixtures. Currently the Phoenix sit in ninth spot on the table and are battling to secure a finals spot.
Hemed has scored five goals in his past eight matches and is the club’s third highest-goal scorer this year behind Ben Waine and Ulises Davila.
“If I look at the team we had a very frustrating start as we often played well but we didn’t get the result,” he admitted.
“But because we’ve stuck to our ways, kept playing our football and in the end, you can see we are getting points and scoring goals, we are one of the most high-scoring teams in the league. For me, personally, I came here for the first game of the season, I didn’t really have a pre-season.
“It was quite hard to get used to the league, to new teammates straight away. The first few games were about getting match sharpness and then I had a small injury that kept me out for two, three games.
“But after that, that time out maybe gave me the time to build again my fitness, my sharpness and then I when I came back I felt better and ready to go. Then things are going well for me and the team, and we hope to go on a good run until the end of the season.”
Off-contract at the end of this campaign, Hemed says he has yet to make a decision on his future but staying in the A-League next season remains an option.
“To be honest for us we’ve really enjoyed this season, it’s a very good experience for us as a family and for me as a player,” the forward said.
“We’ve always said let us finish the season, hopefully, the best way with the team, and then we can speak together, me and my wife, to see what is the best for us for the next season. We will see the picture more clearly, we will see for us, for football and as a family, where is the best place to be for the next season.
“To stay here in the A-League is for sure one of the options we will think about.”