(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Israel national soccer team welcomed striker Eran Zahavi back into the fold Sunday, ending an almost year-long exile from the team. Zahavi quit the national side after his frustration boiled over during a 1-0 defeat to Macedonia during a 2018 World Cup qualification match in September 2017.
“Eran Zahavi returns to service for the national team and will be included in the squad for the opening of the [UEFA] Nations League,” the Israel Football Association wrote on Facebook, posted alongside an apology from the striker.
In 2017, needing a win to keep pace with third-place Albania, Israel found itself behind 1-0 in the 73rd minute when fans singled out Zahavi, who was wearing the captain’s armband. In response, Zahavi ripped off the armband and flung it to the ground, for which the national team suspended him indefinitely. Israel went on to lose and finished fourth with 12 points.
Israel's coach, Andreas Herzog, said in a statement he welcomed the news as Zahavi truly loves the team and "wants to contribute in every possible way."
The 49-year-old Herzog was named coach of the side in mid-August
, replacing Elisha Levy.
“The decision to return to the side is not simple for any player but Eran agrees with the process, and everyone together, the team, the FA and fans, stand together with the purpose of leading the team to greater heights. As manager I have to do everything possible so that the best players are in the starting side,” Herzog said.
Zahavi, for his part, said in the team’s statement he erred in his 2017 outburst, saying it came from a “moment of great anger.”
“My biggest dream from the moment I started playing soccer was to join the national side. I was privileged to be part of the team and to serve as its captain and there’s no greater honor. I made a mistake in my reaction during the game against Macedonia when, in a moment of great anger and frustration because of a few fans, I threw the captain’s armband and wronged thousands of fans who believe in the team,” he said.
“I love the team and was always proud to represent Israel and do everything to bring accomplishments and give the fans something to root for,” Zahavi said. “I return to the team with love and hope to march forward together.”
In Zahavi, Israel reacquires a clinical striker who holds the records for most goals in an Israel Premier League season and was named Chinese Super League MVP of 2017.
The national team kicks of its UEFA Nations League campaign on September 7th, hosting Albania, before traveling to Belfast to square off against Northern Ireland in a friendly.
Israel faces Scotland and Albania in round-robin matches from September to November in the recently-created Nations League, looking to be promoted to League B and boosting its rankings for the 2020 Euros.
The 31-year-old striker has six goals for the Israeli national team during his career and has netted 16 goals to go along with eight assists for Guangzhou R&F in China this season.
Beersheba held by K8 in opener
Meanwhile, the Israel Premier League kicked off its campaign on Saturday, with three-time reigning champion Hapoel Beersheba being held to a 1-1 draw by Ironi Kiryat Shmona.
In other action, Hapoel Tel Aviv had a tough time digesting its 2-1 defeat to newly promoted Hapoel Hadera, with the Reds players’ fallen faces and the silent dressing room telling the story.
Next week, the Reds will meet Hapoel Haifa, which beat Maccabi Netanya 5-0 on Saturday, when Ashdod SC topped Bnei Yehuda 1-0.
On Sunday, Bnei Sakhnin drew Hapoel Ra’anana 0-0, while Maccabi Tel Aviv faced Maccabi Haifa in a match that ended after press time.
Beitar Jerusalem visits Maccabi Petah Tikva on Monday to close out the opening weekend.
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