How Avi Nimni became the undisputed king of Maccabi Tel Aviv

How Avi Nimni became the undisputed king of Maccabi Tel Aviv

The number eight is something considered immeasurably lucky in parts of Asia, viewed as a sign of immense prosperity. The city of Tel Aviv may lie on the same continent, but its ties to the number eight have a completely different meaning. It is iconic to supporters of Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Israel’s biggest football club, representing arguably the greatest player to ever pull on their blue and yellow jersey.

Avi Nimni was born on 26 April 1972 in Holon, an industrial area some 10km south of central Tel Aviv. His uncle, Meir, played 13 seasons for Maccabi as a defensive midfielder in the 1960s and 1970s, and such pedigree was passed onto his nephew. In the Maccabi youth system since the age of nine, Avi was highly valued by coaches, who allowed the talented midfielder to play several age groups up.

Comfortable on either the left of midfield or as a central playmaker, Nimni was well known for his dribbling, accuracy from free-kicks, and creativity. Such skill allowed him to break into the first team at the age of 18, quickly establishing himself as a key player. Nimni hit 10 goals during his first full season in 1990/91, going on to help Maccabi capture their 15th league title in the following campaign.

Under the guidance of Avram Grant, he would forge a formidable midfield partnership with Itzik Zohar and Uri Malmilian. This time he registered 15 goals, including a hat-trick, aged just 19, away at Hapoel Petah-Tikva. Other standout results of his maiden title-winning season were a 4-0 demolition of bitter rivals Hapoel Tel Aviv, alongside two 5-1 wins over Maccabi Haifa.

Such form prompted a call-up to the senior international side from joint managers Itzhak Schneor and Ya’akov Grundman. Nimni came on for the second half of the February 1992 friendly with the Commonwealth of Independent States, receiving his first start a month later against Cyprus. A change of manager midway through the year did little to impact his progress, with the 20-year-old now an undisputed starter in the Israel midfield.

Despite still being in his formative years, Nimni displayed remarkable consistency in his performances for Maccabi to warrant his place in the national setup. Maccabi ended as runners-up over the next two seasons, although with consolation silverware in both, namely the 1993 Toto Cup and 1994 State Cup. On a personal level, Nimni continued to score regularly, registering double figures in both campaigns. 

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Maccabi Tel Aviv regained their title of Israel’s best the following season, a situation that would be repeated in 1996. On this occasion, Nimni himself was the man to seal the title, scoring the insurance goal in a 3-1 victory at Haifa before netting the only goal in the title-deciding win over Beitar Jerusalem. That season he would again register 10 strikes, with Nimni also scoring in the State Cup final to seal Maccabi Tel Aviv’s first double for 19 years.

This was a golden generation of Israeli football, with stars such as Eyal Berkovic and Haim Revivo just some of the names moving west. With Nimni having scored double figures in his first seven seasons, it was only natural that he would follow sooner or later. The final decision was to follow Revivo to Spain, one influenced by his agent and rights owner Carlos Garcia, with Nimni signing for Atlético Madrid in November 1997.

Injuries hampered his efforts to get into the side, with the midfielder restricted to just two starts in his sole season at the Vicente Calderón. During his time in Spain, he did play in both legs of the UEFA Cup semi-final loss to Lazio. Nimni also registered his first international strike after five years in the side, scoring in a friendly win over Belarus.

Back in Tel Aviv, Nimni continued as if he’d never left, scoring 17 times as Maccabi ended runners-up to Hapoel Haifa in 1999. It wouldn’t be long before he returned west for the second time, Premiership strugglers Derby County being the destination. Things started promisingly, with Nimni setting up Dean Sturridge two minutes into his debut at Arsenal, also scoring away to Everton. In the end, however, he made just four appearances across his three-month loan, with Derby opting to sign Georgi Kinkladze instead.

Yet again Nimni returned home to Maccabi, arriving for the conclusion of the 1999/2000 season, where he would register eight times in just 12 matches. By now he was the club captain, a role he had inherited in 1998 upon the retiring of fellow Maccabi icon Nir Klinger. His position as the club’s key man was cemented after the appointment of new coach Shlomo Scharf in July 2000.

Scharf arrived at Maccabi having recently led the national team in a futile attempt to reach Euro 2000. This ended in an 8-0 aggregate loss to Denmark in the playoffs, with allegations that several players had spent the eve of the first leg with call girls. As a result, Scharf had a reputation of breeding ill-discipline, something he hardly helped by singling out Nimni after just his second game in charge.

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In the post-match interview after a 2-2 draw with Hapoel Haifa, Scharf labelled the performance of his captain as “shameful”. In response, Nimni called this a public humiliation, citing it as a clear example of Scharf’s inability to keep control. Outraged, the manager informed chairman Loni Hertzikovic of his desire to suspend the player and strip him of the captaincy. Hertzikovic, however, sided with Nimni, a close friend of his, and after just one more match, Scharf was fired.

This decision proved to be the correct call as Nimni registered a career-best 25 goals to end the season as the top scorer. He also scored in the 3-0 State Cup final win over Maccabi Petah Tikva. During this campaign there was talk of another move back to Spain, although a proposed transfer to Real Valladolid fell through after Nimni bought his rights back from Garcia. This ensured he would be able to remain in Tel Aviv for the rest of his career, something which served to only strengthen his mythical image further.

This period was something of a barren spell for Maccabi in the league, with another disappointing campaign in 2002 seeing the side end in third, 18 points behind a dominant Maccabi Haifa. Nimni still scored 13 goals, playing a key part in another State Cup triumph. A major setback was to occur on the international stage, however, as Israel fell agonisingly short of reaching the 2002 World Cup playoffs. In a winner-takes-all final group match with Austria in October 2001, Israel were leading 1-0 until the 92nd minute, when Nimni was adjudged to be at fault in the wall to let Andreas Herzog’s free-kick through.

Matters improved no more at club level, with the 2002/03 season the most problematic of Nimni’s career. Having taken unfancied Beitar Be’er Sheva close to promotion, Klinger returned to Maccabi Tel Aviv as manager in the summer of 2002. A poor start to the season culminated in a 3-0 loss to Hapoel Be’er Sheva, a result which saw Klinger relegate his former teammate to the bench.

Nimni’s replacement, Baruch Dego, seized the opportunity, scoring in a 3-2 win at reigning champions Maccabi Haifa. Following this, Nimni was restricted to cameos off the bench, although even these were taken away after a comment in late April 2003. With one of the closest title races in years, involving both the big Maccabi clubs and Hapoel Tel-Aviv, Nimni claimed in an interview that had he played more regularly, such a tight contest would not exist. Incensed, Klinger responded by dropping Nimni from the squad entirely.

This move was reversed, however, when Dego injured himself in training a few weeks later. Naturally the number eight was the obvious replacement, and Klinger renounced to put Nimni back into the starting line-up. The move was rewarded, Nimmi scoring twice in the second half to overturn a 2-1 deficit away at Beitar Jerusalem.

The following match with Bnei-Yehuda Tel-Aviv saw Nimni hit a hat-trick in a 5-0 win, something that would prove crucial a fortnight later. The final game of the season with Hapoel Petah Tikva saw Nimni score his 14th goal, a remarkable feat considering he only started 16 matches. Maccabi Tel Aviv would win the title by the narrowest of margins, with just two goals separating them and Maccabi Haifa. During the celebrations, Klinger seemed to have forgiven Nimni, describing the player as “the king”.

This crown was to remain precariously perched for the remainder of the Klinger reign, however. Things began with an embarrassing Champions League exit to Slovak champions MŠK Žilina. Shortly after, a fallout between Nimni and fellow Israel international Tal Banin became very public, with the squad unharmoniously split. Klinger called a press conference to state the pair were “destroying everything good about Maccabi”, and announced both players had been released.

This came off the back of another public feud with Chilean striker Rodrigo Goldberg earlier that year. Well known to have an existing issue with Nimni over his treatment of foreign players, Goldberg stated how he had never played for a club where one player held such power. He went on to label the Israeli “the worst person he had ever met” and “a gangster”. In retaliation, Nimni famously retorted: “After a week, no one will remember who he is.”

Considering Goldberg’s statement, his “gangster” jibe held some truth. There is no denying that the player knew both mob boss Yossi Harari and infamous drug trafficker Zeev Rosenstein. There are photographs of them together at public functions, alongside bar mitzvahs of each other’s children. These were, however, fobbed off as non-stories, with many famous players in Israel attending the same events as underworld figures owing to their high profile.

Such connections even extended to his feud with Klinger, who, upon benching Nimni, received a threatening phone call from a self-professed “senior underworld figure”. As it transpired, the player had no knowledge of such actions, with it appearing the criminal had taken it upon himself to restore Nimni to the team. This cult of personality is something quite incredible for a footballer, with the player supposedly finding a cell wall covered in his pictures upon visiting Harari in jail in 2000.

Nimni was widely idolised, a position emphasised upon his return to Tel Aviv after leaving for Beitar. Maccabi fans unveiled a massive banner reading “there is no one else”, going so far as to boycott matches until Nimni was re-signed. Despite seeing their club qualify for the Champions League group stages for the first time ever in 2004, their overriding wish was to see their idol back in his spiritual colours.

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This came to fruition in 2005, when Klinger relented to fan pressure to sign Nimni. In response, the club sold a record number of season tickets, and with fellow high profile signings in Đovani Rosso and Eyal Berkovic were expected to challenge for the title. Things backfired, however, with the club 17 points behind Maccabi Haifa when Klinger resigned in early December. This gap only grew bigger, with the Tel Aviv outfit ending in sixth, some 36 points behind the champions.

Despite approaching the age of 34, Nimni was still a regular for the Israel side. He served as captain for their 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign, scoring three goals, including a crucial injury-time winner in Cyprus. His final international appearance came in the last group game against the Faroe Islands in November 2005. In the end, Israel missed out on a playoff on goal difference to Switzerland,

The 2006/07 season saw Nimni again register 10 goals as the club ended in third place. By now the mythical figure of Maccabi was 35 and due to retire at the end of the season. In order to verify his commitment to the club, however, he reversed this decision following a 3-0 defeat to bitter rivals Hapoel on the final day of the season, vowing to play on in search of vengeance.

His final season started poorly, with an embarrassing 1-0 loss to Andorran minnows Santa Coloma in the UEFA Cup. A few matches into the season, Nimni was injured in a Toto Cup match and ruled out for the remainder of the campaign. During this time he also acted as the club’s general manager, stopping his training in preparation for life after football.

He was convinced to return for a farewell appearance on 17 May 2008, the last game of the season. Coming on in the 90th minute of a 2-1 win over Maccabi Petah Tikva, many in the crowd were reduced to tears. Nimni was famed for his calmness and humility, particularly towards his supporters, with the player estimated to attend around 400 functions each year. One memorable event occurred in 2008, when a teenage girl ambitiously invited all of the Maccabi team to her birthday party, with Nimni the only player to show up.

An unsuccessful spell as manager between 2008 and 2011 did little to damage his reputation. Maccabi Tel Aviv’s record scorer with 194 goals, Avi Nimni possesses an untouchable legacy in Kiryat Shalom. Like on the other side of Asia, the number 8 is now revered here, retired in honour of the man who wore it so well.

By James Kelly @jkell403

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