The journey of Biram Kayal from the street football of Jdeideh, a village near Haifa, to the attention of no less a person than Sir Alex Ferguson has been swift and marked with his belligerent swagger. It has also been built on strong foundations.
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The statistics are instructive. Kayal has always been a talent, moving through the under-17, 18, 19 and 21 Israeli teams before making his debut for the national side in 2008. His record at Celtic is impressive. The only time the midfielder has lost in a Celtic jersey was the away match in Utrecht. The Israeli did not play against Braga or in the league defeats to Rangers, Hearts and Motherwell. This is not coincidental.
The substance of Kayal is illustrated by the facts but the style can only be revealed in stories. The best one concerns his arrival at Lennoxtown. In the first training session, he dumped Scott Brown on his posterior. Moments later he adroitly avoided retribution from the Celtic captain, who again was left on the ground.
Brown took it in good spirit but he also accepted that he had a team-mate of strength, aggression and attitude.
“He is a winner,” says Moshe Harush, the sports correspondent of Haaretzt. “He’s very, very competitive,” says his agent, Dudu Dahan, himself a former player. “He’s a bull,” said Neil Lennon after his first view of his future signing.
So where did this talent come from and what type of character is Kayal? The son of a construction worker, he is from a supportive family who remain close to him. “For him, family is everything,” says Dahan. “His father has given up work to travel to watch his son and to be there for him always.”
Dahan, too, insists his client’s form at Celtic is only an intimation of what is to come from him. “This is him at 50%,” he said yesterday. “Wait until the Celtic fans see him at his best and with some matches behind him. He has so much more to give.”
The agent could be suspected of talking up his client but he delayed a meeting to explain why Kayal was performing so well at Celtic. The midfielder has endured hernia problems, with this injury ruling him out of the run-in to last season’s Israeli title.
However, Dahan said the treatment the player had received at Celtic only made him want to repay the club. “Celtic and Biram is like a wedding. He has had some injuries at Celtic but the club have always looked after him. The manager always gives him confidence. Biram wants to do well for the club and the manager. This is the way to treat players,” said Dahan.
“Biram has had bad times but he never forgets those who stay around him.”
Those “bad times” mostly concern that run-in last season. Hapoel Tel Aviv won the championship in the last minute of the final match, beating Beitur in injury time and depriving Maccabi Haifa of successive titles.
Harush, a journalist who has watched the rise of Kayal, has no doubts about why Haifa conceded the championship after leading it for much of the season. “Kayal was the key,” he said. “He played on and on with an injury until he simply had to stop playing. If he had been on the park, then there would have been different champions.”
Both Dahan and Harush testify to Kayal’s mental strength and his unwavering will. “There is a highly emotional side to him as well,” said Harush. “Coaches talk of him crying in dressing-rooms like a baby after a defeat. You must realise how important it is to compete, to win for him. He is a huge winner. He was a very, very important player in Israel and we are not surprised he has become a star in Scotland.”
Harush said most observers of the Israeli game believed Kayal’s talents would be apparent in any league. “Technically, he is excellent. He is also strong but he has a belief, too. If he feels there is something wrong, he will say it. He will not need to be asked twice for his opinion. He is open in this sense. He plays and talks without fear.”
The signing has been a major coup for Celtic, particularly taken in tandem with the acquisitions of Gary Hooper, Joe Ledley and Emilio Izaguirre for a relatively modest outlay.
Celtic sources say they had few doubts about Kayal before the signing and that he is matching the expectations placed upon him. He was acquired as a midfielder who would be introduced almost immediately into the team. Lennon has given Kayal the opportunity. The midfielder has grabbed it.
There has been subsequent surprise that such an obvious talent was not pursued by many other clubs but Harush said: “Celtic made the only concrete offer, believed to be about €1.8m. There was some interest from English clubs and from Germany. But the only firm move came from Celtic. Kayal knew the size of the club and was delighted to go.”
His career in Glasgow has been blemished only by injuries. “Yes, he has already become a hero to the Celtic fans in just months,” said Dahan. “But he can and will give more.”
The agent then excused himself to go into his meeting, leaving a final message. Dahan may have demands on his time as covetous eyes come to rest on his player, but he is insistent about Kayal’s immediate future. “Biram loves Celtic and has a great relationship with the manager,” he said. “His big ambition is to play Champions League football for Celtic next season.”
The Kayal-Celtic marriage is likely to have future chapters of intrigue and drama.
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