IT was incredibly fitting timing, and the perfect stage, for new Wellington Phoenix recruit Tomer Hemed – the first Israeli footballer to play in the A-League – to score his first goal on Australian soil on Monday night against the Western Sydney Wanderers in arguably the competition’s best game of the year so far.
Although the Phoenix lost the high-scoring, see-sawing match 3-4, JNF NSW organised two busloads of Jewish fans to attend the match, and they erupted in a frenzy of Israeli flag-waving when in the 64th minute – just two minutes after Hemed was thrust into the game off the bench – he calmly booted a penalty attempt into the right corner of the goal.
Then in the final minute of the game, with Phoenix needing an equaliser, the 33-year-old Israeli national team member found the back of the net again, only for a VAR (video assistant review) to rule that his left shoulder was about 1cm offside.
There were unreal scenes at Bankwest Stadium tonight when Israeli player Tomer Hemed scored a goal against Western Sydney Wanderers for his team the Wellington Phoenix. The Wanderers went on to win the game 4-3.
Posted by The Australian Jewish News on Monday, March 15, 2021
Reflecting on the game, Hemed told The AJN that as soon as the referee awarded a penalty to the Phoenix, “I knew I wanted to take it straight away”.
“Firstly, I felt it was an opportunity for me to take responsibility,” Hemed said.
“I also really wanted to score for all the Jewish fans who’d come to the stadium.
“I saw them in the stand behind the goal posts, and it was an amazing feeling – a very special feeling – to celebrate with them and to see all the Israeli flags.
“I feel very proud and excited to be the first Israeli to play in, and score in, the A-League.
“Thank you to every one of the fans who came to watch.”
Of his final-minute disallowed goal, Hemed said, “that was really disappointing because we lost the game because of that, but it was a very close VAR decision – not an easy one to make”.
“But at least the goal celebration with the fans again is something that nobody can take away!”
Although the Phoenix lost the thrilling away clash and are currently 10th on the 12-team ladder, they’d won their previous two games, and Hemed feels they’re improving each week.
“We’re looking forward to our next 10 games, and if we can continue to be good on the pitch, I know we can make the top six.”
“For me personally, I didn’t have a pre-season here, so it took me a few games to get back my fitness and sharpness.
“I’m really enjoying my football here, and I’m telling everyone in Israel how good it is here, so I hope this will open doors for more Israelis to play in the A-League.”
Phoenix coach Ufuk Talay said in the post-match press conference, “I think he [Hemed] has got the monkey off his back now [by scoring], so hopefully that will give him a bit more freedom to play the game that he normally plays”.
When asked about the enthusiastic flock of Jewish fans at the game, Talay said that given the Phoenix are based in Wollongong rather than Wellington this season, “any support [at matches] for our players, individually and collectively, is a bonus . . . every bit helps.”
The night before he took to the field, Hemed posted an image on Instagram of him wearing tefillin. He told The AJN after the game that playing in front of Jewish fans was a “most special moment for me, to see them here, to score in front of them”.
On the bus ride back to Sydney’s east, a group of bochurim joined JNF education shaliach Yigal Nisell, singing Hebrew songs and celebrating Hemed’s performance.
Nisell told The AJN that Monday night was one of the “highlights in my JNF career”.
“There have been few times when I have felt as close to my homeland as I did last night. With the Israeli flag colouring the stands blue and white, I truly felt like I was back home,” he said.