Israel avoided the big names in Sunday’s Euro 2016 qualifying draw, but was placed with two of Europe’s rising powers as it looks to reach a first major tournament since the 1970 World Cup.
Israel was drawn into Group B with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belgium, Wales, Cyprus and Andorra, with the qualifiers to be played from September 7 until October 13, 2015.
For the first time in the tournament’s history, the European Championships, to be held in France, will involve 24 nations, eight more than previous events.
Therefore, the top two teams in each group will automatically qualify for Euro 2016, with the best third-place finisher to also gain direct qualification. The remaining eight third-placed teams will take part in play-offs during November 2015.
Israel coach Eli Gutman was caught on camera with a broad smile after his team was placed in Group B in Nice. However, that was before Belgium became the sixth and final side in the group.
The national team, which ended its World Cup 2014 and Euro 2012 qualifying groups in third place, may have avoided the likes of Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Italy and England from Pot 1, instead being handed Bosnia.
However, it was hoping to face the likes of Hungary or Republic of Ireland from Pot 2 rather than Belgium, which has risen to prominence over recent years, qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil with an unbeaten campaign.
“We began the draw with a smile until we received Belgium,” admitted Gutman.
“We are going to fight for the group.
There are no easy matches, but we are very optimistic and determined. This is an interesting and balanced group.”
Belgium’s outstanding squad includes the likes of Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany, Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini and Chelsea’s Eden Hazard among many other impact players from the most prestigious clubs in the world.
Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko is the most familiar name on the Bosnia squad, which will play in the World Cup for the first time this summer after winning its qualifying group with eight victories from 10 matches and a combined goal difference of 30-6.
Gareth Bale of Real Madrid and Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal are the stars of the Wales squad, but the Welsh finished in fifth place out of six teams in World Cup qualifying, scoring just nine goals.
Cyprus and Andorra are clearly the weakest teams in the group.
Both finished their World Cup qualifying campaigns in last place, with Cyprus recording a single win and Andorra losing all 10 of its matches.
“This is a tough draw with many good teams, even though I have already heard people underestimating Bosnia,” said Israel captain Yossi Benayoun.
“Belgium is a rising power and is certainly one of the better teams in Europe.
Wales is also a very strong side and four teams have a good chance of qualifying.
We must believe we can do it.”
In other groups, Spain will start its campaign for a third successive European Championship in qualifying Group C along with Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus, Macedonia and Luxembourg.
Italy, runners-up to Spain in 2012, will meet Croatia, Norway, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan and Malta in Group H.
Gibraltar, UEFA’s newest association, will face Germany, Ireland, Poland, Scotland and Georgia. Group A looks to be one of the toughest with the Netherlands taking on the Czech Republic, Turkey, Latvia, Iceland and Kazakhstan.
England coach Roy Hodgson will face Switzerland, a team he used to manage, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino in Group E.