Maccabi Tel Aviv finds itself in one of its closest titles races ever. Over the past number of months the Yellow & Blue’s position on the table has been in constant movement as Jordi Cruyff’s squad is battling it out with 3 other Israel Premier League teams. This campaign brings back memories of the 2002/03 dramatic season and one of its heroes, Rodrigo Goldberg. The striker from Chile was one of the main cogs in the Maccabi machine that won the championship after fighting it out all the way to the final match day which ended up being decided on goal differential.
For those who don’t recall all of the details, let’s go back in time. Maccabi defeated Hapoel Petah Tikva 3:0 on the last Matchday in front of a packed Yellow & Blue Ramat Gan Stadium that handed the team the championship in a photo finish with Maccabi Haifa. The goal differential between the two clubs was only 2 as the season was full of ups and downs, highs and lows and plenty of excitement in between. Goldberg was undoubtedly one of the most favorite foreigners that ever played for the club and he’s the person we went back to and discuss how tight the battle was and what he could add as to what the current squad is experiencing.
Today, Goldberg is a football commentator in his home country of Chile and also has a program on FOX in addition to being on the radio and writing columns for the La Tercera newspaper. The former striker also has an engineering degree.
His years at Maccabi will always be close to his heart and we asked him if he currently follows the club: “I follow Maccabi through the various media outlets. Unfortunately, I can’t watch the games because there’s way to do so. I would be really happy to see at least one match, but I do follow the results on the internet and the Yedioth and Maariv newspapers. However, I would prefer to watch the games. I know that the race is very close and that Hapoel Tel Aviv is in the second division.”
What do you remember about the 2002/03 season?
“I remember that the season was difficult. We fought for the championship against Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv, two very good teams. I recall that I was suffering from an injury over the last two-three months of the season but I didn’t have time to have surgery. I played through the injury and the professional staff kept telling me that they needed me in the squad, push off the surgery until the end of the season. It was hard to do and it was painful, but I saw how close the table was and there was no room for mistake. The goal differential was also going to be important and every match was crucial and incredibly difficult. Every single match and every ball was treated with the maximum amount of care because we knew that one wrong move one way or another could cost us the league. We had won a couple of Cups over the past few seasons and that was great, but to win the championship, that was going to be something else. It was a mentally trying season for both the club and me personally. We battled and we were focused especially over the last 3 months.”
What do you believe made the difference then and what will make the difference for Maccabi now?
“We had a rough time in the dressing room, that’s no secret and we spoke about it a lot. Despite the differences we may have had, we put them aside and worked hard on the pitch. The most important thing for everyone was fighting to win the league and the championship. There was an attitude amongst us, ‘We are brothers and I will fight for you and you for me’. I don’t know how the dressing room is now, but I was very thankful that even though we all had certain issues we didn’t bring that to the field of play because the most important thing is the club. It wasn’t easy and it happens frequently and sometimes you just can’t put those issues aside. I know how things work and at many places these problems can be seen on the pitch and have a negative impact. We were able to keep everyone on the team in check and we played as one unit together and we said that the league is the most important thing. We were close to the top and we had a chance to win and we knew that we couldn’t make any mistakes or have any nonsense go on. The minute we would win then we could close the door and fight with one another. It’s very difficult to do on a day to day basis, but once we began to win one match after the next, we saw that we had a real chance to win the title. We put all of our issues to the side and on the pitch we were one for all and all for one.”
How did you deal with the pressure?
“I played for a number of big teams over the course of my career. I played in front of over 50,000 fans in Chile and in Derby matches where there were more than 80K people. I knew how to act and how to speak with the younger players. There were many youngsters that season. Moshiko Mishalelof and Guy Tzarfati for example and for them it was a totally new situation. There were many discussions in the dressing room. At the end of the day they understood and they were also big players for the team.”
How would you react if you are playing today?
“I would play exactly how I played for my entire life; with my heart and with everything that I have. I might not have been the most technical player, but I had huge heart and I loved to train my whole career, put in extra work and continue to improve so I could do things even better. Every player today needs to give extra and every player on a team has to look at himself and ask himself if he’s giving the maximum and is there more that he could give. It’s not easy, it’s primarily a mental issue and battle. That’s the most difficult thing to deal with, but if you do that, you’ll succeed.”
You certainly understand that the pressure isn’t easy on the fans:
“That’s true, but from my experience Maccabi fans were great. In the most difficult times, with all of the pressure to perform and win, they were there for us every match even when we didn’t play well; they had a very big positive influence on us. When we didn’t play well, the fans always came to us and said, ‘Don’t worry, next match will be better.’ They always were behind us and supported us. My memories of the Maccabi fans are fantastic.”
How do you think the season will end?
“I don’t know, unfortunately I didn’t see any games, but I of course hope that Maccabi will win the title. From what I understand, they are an excellent team that has quality and the ability to do so and I hope that it happens. It’s also important to enjoy the ride. Enjoy the game itself, that way things will go better. When you play under pressure and there are issues, you won’t find the right groove but when you are enjoying the game you have more of a chance to win.”
What message do you have for the fans in Israel?
“I have amazing memories of the fans and the people that are connected to Maccabi. They were good years and I am always thankful as to how the fans treat me even today. They gave me a second chance. My first go around with Maccabi was difficult but the second time, I was able to turn a new page and they believed in me and I only have good things to say. I hope to come to Israel with my family in the near future and show them where I lived and played.”