Though Israel are not the type to dream, they knew that when they were drawn into the same group as Spain and Italy in the qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, their hopes of reaching the world finals for the second time were slim to say the least.
Rather than hope for a miracle, the Nivheret promptly accepted the reality of the situation and readjusted their sights, albeit without entirely ruling out their chances of upsetting the odds. While a 3-1 home defeat to Italy in their opening match made the immediate outlook a little bleaker, coach Elisha Levy was reluctant to write off the rest of the campaign, seeing it as an opportunity to prepare for upcoming challenges, namely the qualifiers for UEFA EURO 2020 and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The effect was immediate, with Israel stringing together three wins in a row, beating FYR Macedonia 2-1 away, seeing off Liechtenstein 2-1 at home and then winning 3-0 in Albania. Thanks to that upturn in form, they climbed 25 places in the November FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, collecting more points during the month than any of the other 208 member associations. Though the win in Albania did not count towards the November Ranking, it showed that the Israelis have been making the most of the momentum they have built up.
Participants at EURO 2016 in France and higher placed in the World Ranking than their opponents on the day, the Albanians quickly found themselves reduced to ten men, and then nine after an hour, with Eran Zahavi, Dan Einbinder and Eliran Atar capitalising on Israel’s numerical superiority to score the goals. “We believed in ourselves and it didn’t take us long to realise that we were better than the Albanians, who are a good side all the same,” said team captain Zahavi, who heaped praise on Israel’s coach for the win: “Elisha Levy did a great job.” “All the merit should go to the players,” replied the man himself, who added that the national team have rediscovered something that had long been lacking: “We showed character and we made the most of the situations that presented themselves.”
Time to dream
It is the absence of those qualities that have prevented Israel from qualifying for the World Cup for a second time – the first having come at Mexico 1970 – and from making a debut EURO appearance, even when they have had kinder draws than on this occasion. Take the qualifiers for EURO 2012, for example, when the top-two seeded teams in their group were Greece and Croatia, or the preliminaries for EURO 2016, when The Blue and Whites collected a mere four points from their last seven games, as Belgium and Wales advanced from their section.
As well as condemning them to watch yet another major tournament on television, that run of form saw them drop to 98th place in the World Ranking this September, the lowest in their history, and spelled the end of Eli Guttman’s four-year tenure as coach. The country’s footballing chiefs brought in the 59-year-old Levy to replace him. Though he has taken on his first job in international football, the new man is not lacking in experience. Fifteen years a player and 25 years a coach in the domestic league, Levy knows Israeli football as well as anyone.
“Levy is the best man for the job,” said Israeli FA President Ofer Eini on his unveiling. “He’s an experienced coach with a lot of ability and mental strength.” The new incumbent has since underlined the fact that he is the right man for the job, building an attractive side made up of Israeli league and overseas-based players, and blending young talents such as Kenny Saief, David Keltjens and Eli Dasa with old hands like Zahavi, Ben Sahar and Tomer Hemed. As the fighting performance against the Italians showed, and the three subsequent wins on the road to Russia, that blend is a promising one. Levy also revealed his strength of character in the lead-up to the crucial match in Albania, sending home Celtic midfielder Nir Bitton, one of his best players, after a disagreement over training.
Levy is hoping his players have got the message, especially with their next assignment being a daunting trip to Spain. Given their recent Ranking rise, however, and their new-found ability to take their chances, Israel are entitled to think big for a change.