Handed a six-month sentence at the end of 2006 for his involvement in a robbery, striker Elran Atar managed to turn his life around and now tops the Israeli Premier League scorers chart with Maccabi Tel-Aviv FC.
At 25, things are looking much brighter for Atar than they did six years ago. Sentenced to a prison spell, Atar's promise as a footballer and the intercession of his club, Bnei Yehuda Tel-Aviv FC, allowed him to serve his time in the community, but while opposition fans rarely fail to remind him of his criminal conviction, Atar knows the bad days are behind him.
"It's in my past now," explained Atar, whose 14 top-flight goals this season put him five clear of his nearest rival in Israel. "People hardly forget it and I understand that. I have paid my debt to society. I grew up. I live and breathe football now."
From the traditionally working-class south side of Tel Aviv, Atar's horizons broadened considerably in 2009. Having recovered from a long-term injury, he scored a stunning overhead kick in Bnei Yehuda's 1-1 draw against Maccabi Netanya FC – so impressive that it finished fourth in the vote for the inaugural FIFA Puskás Award for the year's best strike.
That effort helped draw attention to Atar, who moved to Bnei Yehuda's more glamorous neighbours Maccabi in 2010. He has notched 45 goals in 81 league games since, yet has still to help Israel's most successful club achieve their main target – winning their first title since 2002/03 and becoming once more the pre-eminent force in Israeli football.
With that in mind, the team's Canadian owner Mitch Goldhar determined to bring in a foreign coaching staff, with former FC Barcelona players Jordi Cruyff and Óscar García installed as general manager and coach respectively. Atar has blossomed under this regime, with Cruyff saying: "Elran has been excellent on and off the pitch. He is an important member of the Maccabi squad and I hope he can continue to be."
An international debut in November's 2-1 friendly defeat by Belarus was further evidence that Atar's star is in the ascendant – not bad considering what might have been. "I got a new chance and I took it with both hands, both feet and with my teeth," he said. "I will not give it up easily."
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