It is a moment that will forever tarnish Eran Zahavi’s career.
Even though he is still in his prime at 30 years old, his place among the all-time greatest players in Israeli soccer history is already the subject of much-discussion.
His remarkable success at Maccabi Tel Aviv, including the breaking of an historic scoring record that stood for over 60 years – and his outstanding goal rate for Guangzhou R&F since moving to the Chinese league last summer – have established his place as the leading Israeli player of his generation.
There were more experienced options, but it surprised no one when Israel national team coach Elisha Levy named Zahavi as the blue-and-white’s captain ahead of the start of the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign last year. He was, after all, the player who was expected to carry the team’s hopes and one could hardly blame Levy for going all-in on Zahavi both on and off the pitch.
But what seemed like a decent gamble at the time has backfired spectacularly.
Zahavi’s moment of rage when he flung aside the captain’s armband in protest of being booed by local fans during the 1-0 defeat to Macedonia in Haifa on Saturday, not only brought to the end of his international career a day later, but also cast a shadow he will struggle to shake over all he has, and will, achieve in his career.
The position of captain is basically symbolic. It doesn’t afford the player any particular privileges, but it does come with a set of obligations. The first of which being to lead by example in his play and behavior. It is safe to say that Zahavi has failed miserably on both accounts.
While his inability to translate his club form to national team action is not all his fault, with his coaches and teammates also being part of the problem, Zahavi shoulders all the blame for his petulant conduct.
He was certainly more than entitled to complain about the ignominy of being booed by Israel fans that are supposed to be supporting the national team. But he should have also understood long ago how frustrated many of the blue-and-white faithful must be after so many years of disappointment. It isn’t that they expected Israel to qualify for next year’s World Cup in Russia. That dream was dashed as soon as the draw revealed that Israel had been placed in a group with powerhouses Spain and Italy.
But on the back of a 4-1 thrashing in Spain and a humbling 3-0 defeat at home to Albania, they at least thought the side would show some pride on Saturday. With the team heading to an embarrassing loss against lowly Macedonia, many of the 11,350 people who made the effort to attend the all but meaningful encounter lost their cool.
While it would have been a lot better had they managed to contain their frustration and tried to push the team to score an equalizer, under no circumstance was it okay for Zahavi to respond by ripping the captain’s armband from his arm and tossing it aside like a piece of garbage.
Zahavi explained after the match that “his heart” didn’t allow him to continue and wear the armband. He said he apologizes to the people who “love” him, but added that he saw no reason to say he is sorry to “the fans that were at the stadium and that he doesn’t even regret what happened.”
Less than two hours after the match, the Israel Football Association announced that he is suspended indefinitely and he didn’t fly out with the team to Italy on Sunday ahead of Tuesday night’s World Cup qualifier in Reggio Emilia.
Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev released a statement attacking Zahavi for “trouncing the values by which we try to educate future generations” and the IFA was believed to have been planning on handing him a one-year suspension.
Zahavi chose to preempt any possible disciplinary action and declared on Instagram later Sunday that he will not play for Israel again.
“After a day of much thinking, conversations with my family and the people who have accompanied me throughout my career, I’d like to spare everyone all the committees, commentaries, columns and the unfair trials I am being put through,” Zahavi wrote.
“I decided to go with what I feel is right, it is important for me that people know I always gave my all to the national team, I would like to announce my retirement from the national team!” It is unclear when exactly he made his final decision, but for someone who has deservingly been hailed as a true winner due to his ability to score crucial goals for his club sides, Zahavi acted in a defeatist manner in electing to desert his teammates during a campaign and in his words after the Macedonia match.
“At that moment I was ashamed to be the captain,” said Zahavi. “I reacted to something that happened. The fans don’t respect the team. There are national teams that don’t win a match in 10 years and their fans support them. We haven’t qualified for a major tournament in 40 years and we will probably not qualify for a tournament for another 40 years.”
With Zahavi clearly losing any motivation to play for Israel, the national team will be better off without him. It’s not that his presence was what prevented the blueand- white from qualifying for a World Cup or European Championship.
But the national team has hit a low from which it has no choice but to start to rebuild, and it is better off doing so without Zahavi.
Levy will be replaced at the end of the campaign, and the main goal for the next coach will be to first get the team to play as good as the sum of its parts. It remains to be seen if that will be enough to qualify for a major tournament. Regardless, that will be a lot more than has been achieved by the current and recent blue-and-white teams.
There is always the chance that Zahavi backtracks in a few months and is called up by the next coach. It should, however, be clear by now that placing the team on his shoulders has no chance of ending well.
The events of the past weekend were unfortunate, but they should allow the Israel national team to start afresh in Euro 2020 qualification. And perhaps, just maybe, finally give the blue-and-white fans a team, and captain, to be proud of.