One of Team GB’s stars of this summer’s Maccabiah Games has signed a three-year contract with Israeli football team Maccabi Haifa.
Goalkeeper Jake Lewis played a starring role in the U16’s historic gold win, which included him pulling off two penalty saves in their penalty shoot-out final win over Israel.
Impressing watching scouts during the competition, he was approached moments after the final whistle of the final by Haifa’s chief scout, and invited to take part in a trial which ultimately earned him a contract with one of Israel’s biggest clubs.
He told the Jewish News: “It’s a huge change [for me] but such a great opportunity. I’ve signed for one of the biggest and best clubs in Israel who compete on a European stage. I only turned 16 in April, don’t speak Hebrew and am starting a new life, away from family and friends so it’s not going to be easy, especially acclimatising to the hard training in a very hot and humid climate. But I have big ambitions for myself and want to make a difference to Maccabi Haifa FC.”
Describing the past month as “surreal”, he said: “Never in my wildest dreams did I see this coming. The whole Maccabiah experience, winning gold with such a great group of people, getting the tournament’s Most Valuable Person award, then getting the trial at Haifa – it was totally surreal. My coach in England, Paul Griffin, joked that I might get scouted for a club in Israel, but we didn’t think it would happen. Paul and my parents have all shown such belief in me over the years, but I have to admit if it wasn’t for the U16’s team managers, Gavin Alexander, Adam Fegan and Jonny Meltzer and the great group of friends who brought home the gold for Team GB, I might not have had the chance. Everyone from my agent in Israel, Shahar Greenberg, to the club CEO Itamar Chizik, has been brilliant in making this dream come true.”
Unaware that he was being watched during the tournament, he had only been celebrating GB’s gold win for a matter of minutes when he was approached by Haifa officials. He explains: “At the end of the final, I was approached by Yaniv Cohen, the Director of the youth academy who had come to watch the match as his son was captain of the Israeli team. He asked me if we would be happy to extend our stay in Israel and spend some time trialling with Haifa. A day later, my dad took me to the club’s first team training facility where I was lucky enough to be trained by Giora Antman, the goalkeeper coach of Haifa’s first team and the Israel national team. The following day day I trained with one of the greatest keepers in Israel, Nir Davidovich “the Octopus”, who is the goalkeeping coach at the Haifa academy.
“To be honest, I wasn’t at all aware of the fact that I was being watched in our games. The team started slowly. We should have done better against Brazil in our first match, and we left it really late in beating South Africa in our second, which seemed to set us on our way. We weren’t expected to beat Israel in the final and they kept me busy the time I was on. Israel totally dominated the play but the team’s spirit won us gold and when I was asked to point my dad out at the end I didn’t know it was so Yaniv could ask him about my availability!”
Describing himself as being “knackered” after the final, he said it did help in quashing any nerves he may have had for his trial. “I was so knackered after the final and like everyone in the squad had a sore throat so I wasn’t sure how well I was going to perform, I just told my dad that I would do my best,” he said.
“I think the tiredness and the heat meant any nerves didn’t surface. The first trial with Giora was with another goalkeeper who had played for Canada’s U18s and I think I did pretty well and made Giora laugh. When the club spoke to my dad that night, they said they really liked my attitude and technique. This gave me even more confidence when I went to train with the team and Nir. All the coaches were so welcoming and positive and I felt really appreciated. They really made me feel part of the club from the start and were really quick and giving my agent and my dad positive feedback.”
Having been on the books at Arsenal and Brentford, he attracted interest from several English clubs over the course of the summer, but said: “being Jewish made the decision to join Haifa the best one.”
He said: “I was lucky enough to have spent two years at Arsenal where they have the choice of any goalkeeper in the world. My experience there led to offers in England from Brentford, Stevenage, Peterborough and latterly Watford, all very good clubs. But for me everything about the set-up at Haifa, the city itself, the people who made me feel so wanted and of course being Jewish made the decision to join Maccabi Haifa the best choice for me on so many levels.”
Being coached by Davidovich was also a major incentive for him choosing Haifa. He said: “Nir is a total legend. I knew after my first session with him that he would be the coach to help develop me into a professional. He’s got such a laid back attitude but works you really hard and he’ll definitely get the best out of me. He had such a long and distinguished career as a goalkeeper and I really want to emulate his achievements. He’s got a huge reputation, not just in Israel but across the world and I’m just so lucky to find myself being coached by Nir.”
While he will start out with the U17 team, his ambitions are sky-high, hoping to not only become the club’s number one goalkeeper, but also maybe turn out for the senior Israel, or even England team. “My ultimate ambition is to be promoted to the first team, to play with the top Israeli football players,” he says. “And I would love to think I could represent Israel at national levels for the age groups up to U21, and then hopefully get the option to represent Israel or even England. The club have taken a calculated gamble in bringing a young Jewish English boy to Israel and I want to show everyone that they have got a goalkeeper who will work hard to help them win titles, cups and establish myself as a world name in football. I want to have the same reputation of my favourite keeper Manuel Neuer and emulate Nir as Israel’s all-time number one.
“I want to be speaking Hebrew by the end of the year, as well as attain the best grades as the football allows at my new school in Haifa and become an integral part of life and sport in my new home. Most of all though, I want my parents to be proud of me.”