Israeli national soccer team meets during practice.
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Israel coach Eli Gutman insists the Eliran Atar scandal will have no lasting effects on the national team which began on Tuesday its preparations for the crucial Euro 2016 qualifiers against Wales on Saturday and Belgium three days later.
The national team’s 25-man squad held its first full training session ahead of the showdown with Wales at Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa, with Gutman first giving his version of events to the ugly squabble with the Maccabi Haifa striker.
“The whole Atar issue will have no influence on the team,” Gutman claimed. “We will not use this as an excuse regardless of our results as it will have no effect on the national team’s preparations.”
Atar, who has scored five goals for Haifa since joining the club in January, was the most notable absentee from Gutman’s squad for the qualifiers, even though he has only made three total appearances for the national team, the last of which more than two years ago.
After reports of the conversation between Atar and Gutman held in last week’s preliminary training session had surfaced, including anonymous quotes regarding the coach’s general unhappiness with Atar’s conduct, the striker released a scathing statement on Monday, saying Gutman was dishonest and responsible for leaking their one-on-one talk.
The Israel Football Association responded harshly, blaming Atar for leaking the conversation before saying that “someone who pretends to present himself as an honest man can’t act so hypocritically” and that Atar’s “attempt to escape responsibility with an untrue statement and his attempt to hurt the team’s preparations prove how correct the coach was not to call him up.”
After reiterating he was not the one who leaked the conversation with Atar, Gutman revealed its entire content in Tuesday’s press conference.
“I met Atar for a personal conversation the way I do with every new player and told him that I called him up for the preliminary training session as he fully deserved it,” Gutman said. “I expected him to say that he was happy to be here and would try to prove he deserves to be in the final squad. However, instead he said to me that I ignored him even when he scored 22 goals in a season for Maccabi Tel Aviv and added that he thinks I only called him up because Gili Vermouth was injured. At that moment I had already decided I wouldn’t call him up, but chose not to tell him straight away as it would have hurt our training session."
“The leaking of the conversation isn’t the issue,” added Gutman, who said he would reconsider calling up Atar in the future should he apologize. “The issue is the player’s attitude. An attitude that is opposite to what the current national team represents.”
Israel currently leads Group B with a perfect nine points from three matches, with Wales in second place, one point further back from four games, while favorite Belgium has five points from its first three contests.
The top two in each group qualify automatically along with the best third-place finisher, while the remaining eight third-place teams go into a playoff.
Wales, which hasn’t reached a major tournament since qualifying for the World Cup finals in 1958, has so far beaten Andorra and Cyprus while drawing with Bosnia and Belgium.
The Wales squad includes 12 players who ply their trade in the English Premier League, including Joe Allen (Liverpool) and Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal), as well as Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale.
“Wales is a wonderful team,” said Gutman. “We need to take them seriously. However, we have a strong and cohesive team which can compete against any rival.”