(JTA) — For decades, Jewish players have been increasingly rare in English professional soccer. Since 1992, only one British-born Jew has appeared in the Premier League, the country’s top tier and arguably the best soccer league in the world.
But this year, an Israeli has been turning heads with his play in the league, to the extent that analysts believe he could earn a spot on one of the world’s elite teams this summer.
After recovering from a knee injury last year, Manor Solomon, a 23-year-old from Kfar Saba in central Israel, has shined as a midfielder for Fulham F.C., one of a few Premier League teams based in London. Solomon scored in five straight games from Feb. 11 through March 6, becoming the first Israeli to accomplish the feat since Liverpool’s Ronny Rosenthal scored in three straight in 1992.
“It’s something I’ve always dreamed of,” he said of his first Premier League goal, against Nottingham Forest.
His success story comes after a harrowing year. After playing for the Israeli team Maccabi Petah Tikva, Solomon joined the Ukrainian soccer club Shakhtar Donetsk in 2019. When he scored his first UEFA Champions League goal that season, he became the youngest Israeli to score in the Champions League — the highest level of club competition in Europe — at 20 years old.
After Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine in February 2022, he “woke up to the sound of explosions and sirens,” as he recounted to BBC Sport. “It was like being in the middle of a movie.”
He quickly made arrangements to leave Ukraine, making the 17-hour journey to the Polish border — where he had to wait for more than 10 hours in the freezing cold before making it home to Israel.
“I feel lucky I got out,” he said.
He joined Fulham F.C. last July on a temporary one-year deal, thanks to a FIFA rule allowing non-Ukrainian players in Ukraine to suspend their contracts. His Sephardic heritage allowed him to obtain a Portuguese passport, which helped facilitate his travel throughout the European Union.
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Soccer fans back home in Israel are taking notice of the rise of “King Solomon.”
“Everyone has their eyes on the TV to see what Manor is going to do. That’s across the country. Any time that Manor is on TV now, you can guarantee the viewers are through the roof,” sports writer Josh Halickman told The Athletic.
Solomon said “It’s difficult” for him to walk down an Israeli street.
“If you go to Tel Aviv or somewhere, it’s impossible to walk,” he said. “Sometimes, I want to go with my girlfriend to the beach in nice weather and you need to go to a separate place because otherwise, the people go crazy.”
The “Manormania,” as some have called the hype around Solomon, is evident across Israeli media’s sports pages. Soccer is one of the most popular sports in Israel, and having a homegrown star play in Europe is no small feat.
“Him being a representative for Israeli success has a double meaning,” Einav Schiff, a journalist at Yedioth Ahronoth, told The Athletic. “It’s not only that he’s a good soccer player and people admire him for that — they also admire him as a representative of the country.”
Solomon also plays for Israel’s national team. Israel hasn’t qualified for the FIFA World Cup since 1970, but the team is currently in the midst of qualifying for the UEFA 2024 European Championships.