Eran Zahavi: A Striker with a Golden Touch

Eran Zahavi, Guangzhou R&F's Israeli forward, has a reputation as one of the best scorers of the Chinese Super League. He showed his skills over and over, but on Saturday he left everyone jaw-dropped. Zahavi, meaning “Golden” in Hebrew, produced a golden moment indeed.

It was the 90th minute of a seemingly regular league game, the score showing a 1-1 draw against Tianjian Tianhe. Zahavi got the ball just a few yards from goal, had his view blocked by two defenders and the goalkeeper was prepared. But instead, Zahavi decided to do it differently. He produced a stunning Rabona kick from short range to score the winning goal. If you are unfamiliar with the term, you will know soon precisely how ambiguous that skill is to produce even on open play, let alone to score a goal with it.

"I just wanted to kick the ball," he said after the match, "my friends in Guangzhou knew that I could do that, but Tianjin's players had no idea." This shows only a small part of the exciting combination between Eran Zahavi and Chinese football.

The Rishon-Lezion born striker arrived in China during the summer of 2016. It was after a great couple of seasons as a Maccabi Tel Aviv player, as he scored 35 goals in the final campaign, an Israeli record for a single season. The previous record was set in 1955. Moreover, he led his club during that season to the Champions League group stage, and all that was enough for Guangzhou R&F to buy him for $8 million.

Zahavi had a short and unsuccessful spell in Europe, as he played for only a season and a half in Palermo from 2011 to 2013. His decision to move to China seems like an unusual step for an Israeli, especially as it's not common to see Israeli players in Asia. Zahavi had a chance to show his ability from the first moment. In his debut against Shijiazhuang Ever Bright, he was subbed in when the result was a 1-1 draw, scored and assisted, and Guangzhou R&F eventually won 4-2.

His team has started to rise. The club that was previously at the bottom of the table climbed to the top half and became closer to dreams about participation in the continental competitions. Although Zahavi came in the middle of the season, he scored 11 goals in 15 matches and was one of the top 10 scorers in that season. This feat was only a hint for the upcoming years.

In 2017, Guangzhou R&F aimed for the top spots. On the fourth matchday, the club made history and climbed to the head of the ladder for the first time. They spent a few more weeks there, while Zahavi was unstoppable with seven goals in 7 matches. Unfortunately, the team was not good enough to keep it. With only a single win in 11 games, R&F started to fall, and Zahavi's goals didn't help enough.

Only during the latter stages of that season, Zahavi started to show his ability again, but something else happened, far away from China. As the best Israeli player, Zahavi got the opportunity to be the national team captain during the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign. Unfortunately, his performances were weak, and he got criticized that his decision to play in China led to a decrease in his abilities. It all blew up in a match against Macedonia on September 2017, when he decided to throw away his captain armband during the game in front of everyone, and therefore was suspended from the national team altogether. 

He then returned to China, tried to help his team and show that all these critics were wrong. Guangzhou R&F was close to reaching a spot in the AFC Champions League but missed the third place by two points. Zahavi was the league top scorer with 27 goals, becoming the second-ever Israeli to be crowned as a top scorer in a foreign league.

Last season, Zahavi had a chance to change something in his career. Although he missed some matches due to injuries, he finished third in the top scorer table with 20 goals. A more significant moment was when his national team ban was uplifted by the newly appointed national team manager, Andreas Herzog.

After getting his confidence back in Israel, Eran Zahavi is making 2019 as one of his best years. Guangzhou R&F is far away from the leading teams and even found themselves fighting against relegation, but Zahavi was crucial. After 24 matches, he is once again leading the top scorer list with 26 goals. Now, everyone speaks about breaking the Elkeson's record from 2014 – scoring 28 goals in a single season, more than any other player in the Chinese Super League history.

We can also see this scoring form in the last months at the national team. Zahavi is leading the top scorer list of the Euro 2020 qualifiers with 9 goals in 6 matches, way above well-known scorers like Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Kane and Teemu Pukki. 

There are still the "what if" questions in Israel. Could Zahavi play in one of the top European leagues and produce the same performances? Does the fact that his best seasons were in leagues such as Israel and China have an impact on his place among the best Israeli players ever?

In China, nobody cares. The newspaper headlines called to nominate that goal for Puskas Award and admired Zahavi for his courage to do that and for getting closer to Elkeson's record. For Zahavi, it's just a place to show what he knows. "It's fun, but I don't want to talk about the record yet," concluded Zahavi, "let's talk about it again when I reach it." Zahavi knows that he will do it. Meanwhile, we can enjoy watching his Rabona again and again. Just listen to the Chinese commentators, and admire this brilliance.