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26.01.2005 Sports News

Selling Ghana by the pound

By Baruch Shai for Haartz

Life in Israel is far from glamorous for Gabriel Kwarteng and Abobora Phineas, two 18-year-old Ghanaian internationals plying their wares for Emek Yizrael's youth team in the second division. They earn $500 a month plus room and board. Kuartang and Phineas are the soccer equivalent of foreign workers.

Kwarteng, a striker, dreams of becoming like Zinadine Zidane, but knows that first of all he will have to help Emek Yizrael climb up a division.

Emek Yizrael's youth division was founded seven years as an arm of the late Rubi Shapira's Hapoel Haifa, and when Shapira died it became an independent organization. "The club is a non-profit organization," said its manager Erez Imberman, who went on to explain the financial reasoning behind the import of the Ghanaians. "Because of the difficult economic situation, we thought of two ways to increase our budget - recruiting sponsors or bringing players from Ghana to help take the team up a division, and then to sell them on to teams in the Premier League. We chose the second option."

This is where Isaac comes into the picture. Isaac is a Ghanaian agent who has been living in Tel Aviv for the past year and a half. His biggest success to date has been John Pantsil, who played for Maccabi Tel Aviv and recently moved across town to Hapoel.

Imberman, who is also on the board of Hapoel Haifa, knows Isaac, who told him during the winter break that he has two talented young Ghana players on his books. "After checking with the Israel Football Association that it was legal to field foreign players in the youth leagues, I told Isaac to `load them on board'," Imberman said.

Isaac packed them off to Israel. The club brought 80 percent of the rights to the players and can complete their purchase for around $50,000, an price it hopes will at least double when it sells them on.

The club rented them a room at Kibbutz Sarid - two beds, a small fridge, a stove and a couple of pots and pans. "We opened the door and said `welcome'. They looked at each another and didn't understand," Imberman said. After a short tour of the kibbutz and opening an account at the grocery, their conversion was over.

The club said they have acclimatised well socially, and often arrive for training with shoes they have been lent by friends. During the recent cold spell, kibbutz members gave them coats and warm clothes.

They spend most of the day watching soccer games on television and listening to music. Twice a day they call their parents in Ghana. Three times a day they pray. "God watches over us," said Kuartang. "Without him I couldn't eat, I couldn't play and I couldn't score. Everything is from God. We have to pray to him every day."

Kuartang has already made an impression as a solid striker and has attracted the attention of Hapoel Haifa coach Nir Levin and Eli Coen of Hapoel Be'er Sheva.

On Saturday, Emek Yizrael has a cup tie with Betar Tubruk. Imberman plans to invite a few coaches over to watch the game and see the goods up close.

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