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The first Israeli to play in the Bundesliga returns to Germany

From 1972 to 1973, Shmuel Rosenthal played alongside Mönchengladbach legends such as Günter Netzer and Rainer Bonhof. For the first time since, he is returning to Germany to attend a screening of a film about his life.

Shmuel Rosenthal first attracted international attention as a defender for Israel at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. Soon afterwards, he decided that he wanted a transfer abroad, but the Israel Football Association (IFA) initially refused to grant his wish.

By the summer of 1972, however, the IFA had relented, and Rosenthal's dream came true when he flew to Barcelona to play for Mönchengladbach in a pre-season friendly.

"Why do you have to play in Germany of all places?" Rosenthal's father asked him before he boarded the plane in Tel Aviv. "I was born because of football," he replied.

In 2015, DW caught up with Rosenthal at his home on the edge of the desert with a view of the Red Sea. The now 68-year-old Rosenthal enjoyed reminiscing about the old days.

"My father came to Israel in 1935 for the second Maccabi Games and stayed to play football," he told DW.

The entire family of Rosenthal's father was murdered in Lithuania shortly after the start of World War II. He was the only survivor.

"And then I came and said 'Papa, I want to play in Germany, what do you think of that?'" Rosenthal recalled. "My father looked me in the eye and said: 'It's not easy for me to say this, but if you want athletic success that badly, and you want to become the first Israeli to play in Germany, then I give you my blessing.'"

29.04.2015 DOKU 90-Minuten 90 Minuten Team mit Shmuel Rosentahl

DW's reporters Matthias Frickel (left) and Thomass Lemmer (right) with Shmuel Rosenthal

Israel vs. Germany for 90 minutes

It's been almost a year since DW first interviewed Rosenthal for the television feature "Football Between Tel Aviv and Berlin." His life story shows better than any history book how football connects Israel and Germany.

In 1970, two years before joining Gladbach, Rosenthal played in a friendly for the Israeli national team in Tel Aviv - against the club he would later join. The Foals were the first professional German team to visit Israel, and traveled under the tightest-possible security, in the cargo space of a military airplane.

Despite the weight of history, 30,000 Israelis cheered on Gladbach as they dismantled their national team 6-0. Israeli enthusiasm for football knew no bounds, in an era when a visiting German writer might be pelted with tomatoes - as Günter Grass was during a visit to Jerusalem in 1971.

Turning back the clock

Rosenthal still describes his year at Mönchengladbach as the highlight of his career, and seeing footage of himself playing against Bayern Munich in the Bavarian capital's Olympic Stadium, he was visibly delighted.

"Uli Hoeness was really difficult for me," he remembered. "It was snowing and he was so fast... "It's 43 years (ago), it's amazing! I prefer to play, not to watch. If I could only turn back the clock and feel the atmosphere."

Bundesliga Borussia Mönchengladbach Uli Hoeneß Shmuel Rosenthal

Rosenthal (right) remembered having a lot of trouble marking Uli Hoeness on a snowy pitch in Munich

Difficulty fitting in

However, Rosenthal's time in West Germany was anything but easy. A Palestinian terrorist group killed 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in the summer of 1972.

"I was famous back then," Rosenthal recalled. "There were other terrorists at large, and the embassy assigned me a body guard."

Rosenthal's teammates were nervous about travelling with him, and that made it difficult for him to really become part of the squad. His form suffered, and after a single season, he returned to Israel.

'The best time of my life'

Shmuel Rosenthal's life and career continued, though. He played in the United States, and partied on the rooftops of Tel Aviv. He even got into trouble with the law, and spent more than a decade in prison. Today, he's a yoga instructor, who proudly shows visitors a photo of himself and his wife with the Dalai Lama. The Mönchengladbach team photo from 1972 also occupies a prominent place in his home.

When DW called him six weeks ago to ask, if he would be willing to attend the 11mm film festival, he agreed without hesitation, saying: "That was the best time of my life."

Shmuel Rosenthal is to attend the screening of the film about his life at the 11mm International Film Festival Berlin on Sunday, March 20th at 6 p.m. The following day, Rosenthal is to travel to Mönchengladbach, where he is to meet with his former teammate, Rainer Bonhof, who is to show him around town. On Thursday, March 24 at 23:30 UTC, DW television's Kick Off! will feature a special on the 11mm Film Festival and a report on Shmuel Rosenthal's visit to Germany.