It was hard not to get caught up in the euphoria that followed Israel’s 3-0 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina in Euro 2016 qualifying in November of last year.
The fact the blue-and-white had started a qualifying campaign with three consecutive wins for the first time since joining UEFA 22 years previously, combined with the lopsided manner of the victory in Haifa, placed Israel in an ideal position go on and qualify for a first major tournament since the 1970 World Cup.
For the first time in more than 15 years, Israel beat a quality rival for qualification in a meaningful encounter and, at the very least, seemed set for a topthree finish in Group B.
Thanks to the new format of the European Championships, which will involve 24 nations for the first time, even third place will be sufficient to reach the playoffs this time around. The top two and the best third-placed team from the nine qualifying groups advance automatically to the finals in France, with the remaining eight thirdplaced sides to play a home-and-away playoff for four berths.
Only seven months have passed since that win over Bosnia, but it feels like Israel has regressed by seven years.
Friday’s 3-1 defeat to Bosnia in Zenica, which came on the back of the home losses to Wales and Belgium in March, has left the blue-and-white pondering the all too familiar question: Where did it all go wrong? With each team having four matches to play and with Israel currently in third place, just two points from second, there is no doubt that the national team has still got everything to play for.
However, one wouldn’t think so listening to the defeatist approach of coach Eli Gutman and his players following Friday’s loss, an exact opposite to the optimistic bravado of seven months ago.
“I didn’t celebrate after the wins, and I won’t go into mourning after this defeat,” said Gutman before adding, “it is now going to be very difficult to finish in third place.”
Maccabi Tel Aviv star Eran Zahavi admitted that Israel can no longer realistically hope to finish in the top two.
“Clearly we are not in an ideal situation at the moment,” he said. “We got the campaign off to an excellent start, but now we are experiencing a poor spell. We will try to do our best until the end of the campaign, but finishing in second place is no longer realistic and we only have ourselves to blame.”
The defeat in Bosnia could also have handed Israel’s hopes of reaching the 2018 World Cup a significant blow. The blue-and-white is set to be a No. 4 seed rather than a No. 3 seed when the qualifying draw is made next month due to its fall in the FIFA rankings.
While there are numerous reasons behind the national team’s collapse, two of the mains ones are surely the fragile psyche of the players – haunted by the many failures of past generations – as well as the dearth of talent at Gutman’s disposal.
After using 35 different players during Israel’s 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign – the third most among the 53 teams which played in the UEFA qualifying groups – Gutman has finally found his favorite lineup. But that was out of necessity as much as it was about stability.
There was only one Israeli plying his trade in one of the top three leagues in Europe (England, Spain and Germany) last season, but that individual, striker Tomer Hemed, has only started in one Euro 2016 qualifier to date.
Wales has 13 such players, Belgium 12 and Bosnia seven.
It is also tough to be optimistic about the more distant future when taking into account that countries like Wales and Bosnia, whose population is less than half of that of Israel, have more than four times as many active players at all levels.
The development of the game in Israel is desperately lacking and until that changes, such triumphs as the one over Bosnia last November will remain an anomaly rather than the start of a trend.
If and when necessary changes are made at the grassroots level, they will come far too late for Gutman, who has four more matches to try and salvage his tenure.
Israel hosts Andorra in a must-win qualifier on September 3 before visiting group-leader Wales three days later.
Wales leapfrogged into first place with a 1-0 win over Belgium, which is still regarded as the strongest team in the group despite sitting three points back in second place.
On October 10, Israel welcomes Cyprus before completing its qualifying campaign at Belgium three days later.
Wins for Israel over Andorra and Cyprus, which is currently tied with the blue-and-white on nine points, will mean Bosnia will also have to pick up all three points in its matches against those rivals, as well as at least two more points from its games against Wales and Belgium, to finish ahead of Israel.
Should the national team manage to collect even a single point from its road matches at Wales and Belgium, Bosnia, which has one point fewer than Israel, would have to win at least three of four qualifiers to move in front of the blue-and-white.
The fact that Israel holds the tie-breaker over Bosnia by virtue of a single goal over their two matches could well end up proving decisive should both teams finish with the same points.
Israel will also keep a close eye on the developments at UEFA’s Controls, Ethics and Disciplinary Body on July 16, with Bosnia facing charges of “disruption of a national anthem,” and over the throwing of objects by supporters, during the win in Zenica.
While it seems unlikely, there is a chance Bosnia will be deducted points as a punishment.
That is hardly how Israel would like to advance from Group B, but considering the blue-and-white’s current state that may well be the only way it does so.
Nothing has been decided yet, but the sensation of optimism felt at the stadium in Haifa seven months ago sure seems like a distant memory now.