Eli Dasa loves playing for Israel, but it has taken unrelenting self-belief to achieve his success.
The late NBA legend Kobe Bryant once said, “Everything negative—pressure, challenges—is an opportunity for me to rise.” At age 27, Eli Dasa, an Israeli-born son of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants, has risen steadily in the football world despite more obstacles than many people confront in a lifetime.
Immigrants face unique challenges, especially people coming from Africa:
“It wasn’t as if a red carpet was rolled out for us. There weren’t a lot of opportunities. You had to find your own way.”
With his father out of the picture, his single mother pregnant, and several younger siblings at home in Tel Aviv, Dasa knew he had to seize an opportunity in Jerusalem.
“It was heartbreaking,” he says of his mother’s efforts to feed and raise five children on her own. His best chance of contributing to the family was by capitalizing on his soccer talent. At age 15—signed by Beitar, Jerusalem’s academy—he moved away from home.
Stories of footballers often feature mentors—pivotal individuals who take a kid under their wing and guide them toward productive careers. In Dasa’s case, mentors are nowhere to be found. A difficult upbringing without role models would leave most people on a fast path to nowhere, but Dasa sees it differently: “I’m blessed that I had my childhood because it enabled me to see opportunities.”
In Jerusalem, he was determined to prove himself quickly. It took him only two years to to become a first-team regular, one of the youngest debutants in the history of the Israeli Super League.
In 2015 he was acquired by league champions Maccabi Tel-Aviv, whose academy he had attended before moving to Jerusalem. “My mother always said, ‘They will want you back,’ and they had to pay a lot to bring me back.” His $670,000 transfer fee was one of the largest in the history of Israeli football.
Relentless dedication to his game earned Dasa his first national team call up in 2015. Five years later, he still says nothing can beat pulling on his Israeli team jersey.
“To play for the national team is the best thing that any footballer can achieve. Every time I play for the national team, I feel as if it is my first and last time. I still get nervous. It is just such an honor. You feel the pressure, but you just have to take responsibility.”
To date, he’s won 27 caps with the Israeli nationals; an Israeli Premier League; and two domestic cups while playing for Beitar Jerusalem and then Maccabi Tel-Aviv. Now, at age 28, he plies his trade as a wing-back in the Netherlands, with the Eredivisie high-flyers Vitesse Arnhem.
A decade after his professional debut, Dasa has taken on the responsibility of managing the career of his younger brother, Or Dasa, a promising Israeli youth international. “It’s so nice to be able to help him,” big brother says. “I’m the one who is responsible, and now no one can bullshit him. I’m proud that he can just focus on his football. Of course, I’m emotionally involved when I negotiate for him, but that enables me to fully support him with everything I have. I always tell him, ‘You have to be better than me. Keep going, give it everything, and be the best in the family.’”
He considers his relationship with his brother to be one of his proudest off-field achievements. “It’s a blessing to be on the side that gives. If you can give without asking for returns, you are truly blessed. It means that I’ve carried the problems I’ve faced, so they don’t have to.”
A football career inevitably ends. Has Dasa thought about life after his playing career? Though he’s no longer financially pressured, he works as hard off the pitch as on it. “I don’t waste my free time outside of football,” he says. “I am really interested in economics. I always take online courses. I always try to speak with businessmen, because in football we have a lot of opportunities. There is always something pushing my back, telling me, ‘Eli, come on—keep moving forward.”
Photographs by Roger Neve.