With beers and sausages as appetizers, former and current players of the Israel national team, as well staff as members, assembled at National Stadium in Ramat Gan on Sunday to see who would stand in the blue-and-white’s way in Euro 2016 qualification.
Judging by the reaction of those on hand when the team was placed in Group B with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Wales, Cyprus and Andorra, one would have thought Israel regularly qualifies for major tournaments, when in fact it has only ever reached the 1970 World Cup.
The room in Ramat Gan was filled with clenched fists and smiles while the grinning face of Israel coach Eli Gutman appeared on screen from France, confirming that those involved in local soccer have learned little from past mistakes.
The elation soon subsided – both at Nice’s Palais des Congrès Acropolis, where Gutman was seated, and in Ramat Gan – when the powerful Belgium was drawn to be the sixth and final team in Group B.
Nevertheless, after avoiding the likes of Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and England, and with Euro 2016 in France to involve 24 nations, eight more than in previous tournaments, it was hard to dampen the optimism.
“If we don’t qualify now, then when will we?” asked Israel Football Association chairman Avi Luzon.
“I’m optimistic,” said Gutman. “This is an interesting and balanced group. We may not have managed to qualify for a major tournament since 1970, but we have the crowd’s support.”
It is true that Israel could have received a far tougher group on Sunday. Israel’s chances are also certainly better than in the past due to the fact that the top two teams in each group will automatically advance to Euro 2016, with the best third-place finisher to also gain direct qualification.
The blue-and-white ended its past two qualifying campaigns – for Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup – in third place, a position which this time around will guarantee the side at least a berth in a play-off for a place in the European Championships.
However, if the disappointments of recent decades have taught us anything, it is that Israel is the last team that can afford to take any opponent lightly.
Bosnia and Belgium may not have an illustrious reputation, but they are undoubtedly two of the rising powers in European soccer and it would be a massive surprise should Israel finish above any one of them.
Belgium qualified for this summer’s World Cup with an unbeaten campaign, winning eight and drawing two of its 10 matches.
Bosnia will also be in Brazil after winning its qualifying group with eight wins from 10 games with a positive combined goal difference of 30-6.
Belgium’s outstanding squad boasts the likes of Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany, Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini and Chelsea’s Eden Hazard among many other players from the biggest clubs in the world.
Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko is the most familiar name on the Bosnia squad, which also includes numerous players from Europe’s top leagues.
One look at the Israel squad immediately sheds light on why it is unrealistic to expect the team to overcome the challenges of Bosnia and Belgium.
La Liga of Spain, the English Premiership, Germany’s Bundesliga and Serie A of Italy are widely regarded as the best leagues in the world.
Rounding out the list of the top 10 European leagues are likely those in France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Turkey and Greece.
Almost every member of the Belgium squad is on a club belonging to the big four leagues, and most of the Bosnia players train on a daily basis on a team from the continent’s top 10 leagues.
Even Wales has more than a dozen players who hail from clubs in the English Premier League, as well as the world’s most expensive player, Gareth Bale of Real Madrid.
How many players does Israel have in the top four leagues? A grand total of… none.
Surely the situation is better when expanding the discussion to the top 10 leagues? Just barely.
There are three Israel squad players who are currently part of clubs in the top French division – Eden Ben-Basat (Toulouse), Maor Melikson (Valenciennes) and Itay Shechter (Nantes).
Eliran Atar (Reims) also plies his trade in France, although he has yet to cement his place in the Israel squad, while Bibras Natcho plays at Greece’s PAOK Thessaloniki.
There are Israeli players in Spain and England, but for the first time in over a decade none in the top divisions.
Yossi Benayoun is a member of Queens Park Rangers of the English second division while Dudu Aouate and Tomer Hemed play for Spanish club Mallorca, which was relegated from La Liga last term.
The vast majority of Israeli players play in the local league, which is of course nowhere near as strong as Europe’s best.
When taking into account all the above, it should hardly be surprising that in 11 campaigns as a UEFA member, Israel has finished in third place six times, while only once ending in second place, also coming in twice in fourth and once in fifth and sixth.
A third-place finish this time around is a realistic target, but far from a given.
Israel’s order of matches could also end up resulting in deflating disappointment, with the blue-and-white to host Belgium in its first qualifier on September 9.
One doesn’t have to stretch their memory too far back to remember how the 4-0 defeat to Russia in Ramat Gan in the team’s second game of 2014 World Cup qualifying crushed Israel’s hopes before the campaign really began.
Following the Belgium match, Israel will travel to Cyprus and Andorra in October in two games it must win to have any real chance of even finishing in third, before hosting Bosnia in November in another potentially heartbreaking home contest.
Optimism is a great virtue in life, but in sports it can often result in disillusionment.
Time and time again, those connected with the Israel national team have set lofty expectations, celebrating supposedly favorable draws, only to see them backfire when discovering that the reality was so much more complex.
It seems that the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign has gotten off to the exact same start, albeit with the refreshing addition of beers and sausages to round out the perhaps overly presumptuous draw experience.[email protected]