Elisha Levy may not be the best coach the Israel national team could have hoped for at this moment.
He is certainly not the most exciting. But now again, neither is the national team.
For that reason and several others, Levy is the right man, in the right place, at the right time for an Israel side disillusioned after decades of dejection, desperately searching for a beacon of hope.
Israel opens its 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign next Monday when it hosts Italy in Haifa. Israel’s hopes of reaching the World Cup for the first time since 1970 were already all but dashed after being paired with former champions Spain and Italy in qualifying Group G. Only the winners of each group will qualify automatically, with the eight best runners-up to advance to home-and-away playoffs.
Israel will also face Albania, Macedonia and Liechtenstein.
The fact the blue-and-white faces an impossible task to reach the next World Cup in Russia was a major consideration in the appointment of Levy, with neither the Israel Football Association nor the new coach under the usual intense pressure to qualify for a major tournament.
Finally there are no unrealistic expectations weighing down the coach, allowing Levy to overhaul the side and ensure it is ready for Euro 2020 qualification.
There is plenty of work to be done, as proven by the side’s failure to reach the Euro 2016 playoffs, picking up just four of a possible 21 points from its final seven qualifiers.
The team capitulated in what has become characteristic fashion and Levy faces a rebuilding process both on and off the pitch.
More than half of the players on previous coach Eli Gutman’s final squad were dropped by Levy. But much of the core of the team remains the same, with Levy understanding as well as anyone else that these are the best players the country has to offer. The likes of Eran Zahavi, Tal Ben-Haim, Nir Bitton and Tomer Hemed will need to continue and carry the team, with few replacements available.
The real question is, can Levy get the squad to play better than the sum of its parts, a task in which recent coaches failed miserably.
His track record shows he has the qualities to do so.
Levy’s appointment to the Israel job capped a coaching odyssey that began in Beit She’an 27 years ago.
The 58-year-old, whose first coaching job was at Hapoel Beit Shean in the third division, was unanimously selected to replace Gutman by the Israel Football Association’s five-man search committee.
Levy spent most of the first 19 years of his career being disregarded and disrespected, but he showed time and again that he knows how to guide an underdog to an upset, the way he will need to do with the blue-and-white.
After succeeding at Bnei Sakhnin, he was finally handed a chance at a big club with Maccabi Haifa in 2008. He guided the Greens to two Premier League championships and a place in the Champions League group stage in four years with Haifa before moving to Hapoel Beersheba. Under his guidance, Beersheba finished in second place in 2013/14 and ended the following season in third, as well as reaching the State Cup final.
Nevertheless, Beersheba chose against renewing Levy’s contract and he decided not to take any other offer in the hope of being awarded the Israel job.
Forever the optimist, Levy believes Israel can compete against Italy, but he remains realistic.
“You always have a chance in soccer and we need to try and be optimistic. In soccer you never know what might happen,” Levy said on Tuesday in a press conference ahead of next Monday’s qualifier.
“In the past, the expectations from the national team were built up and then it all came crashing down. I hope we will see a committed team and I believe that if that happens we can also connect with Israeli soccer fans once more.”
Regaining the trust of the blueand- white supporters is arguably as important as any other part of Levy’s job. There is only a certain amount of disappointment fans can accept, especially when they feel they care more about the outcome than the players they are cheering.
Levy’s demeanor and the positive vibe he exudes are sure to be an improvement on the team’s previous coaches, the dour Gutman, the cranky Luis Fernandez and the glum Dror Kashtan.
But for all his smiles and general pleasantness, it is the results which will ultimately determine if Levy’s tenure will be remembered as a success both on and off the field.
“I’m a coach who has always believed in sticking to the process,” Levy explained. “Even when I had one-year contracts with my teams I always followed that path.
Nevertheless, it must be done in a balanced manner. The average age of our squad is around 25-26, but on the other hand we also have a 36-year-old goalkeeper [Dudu Gores]. We need to have one eye on our upcoming goal, but keep the other looking forward.”
Levy said he has already decided on a game-plan, formation and much of his starting lineup for the match against Italy, but that he wants to see the players in action on the training field before making his final decisions.
Levy was never an ideal candidate for the Israel job, but he is the best fit for a position every Israeli coach dreams of, although the chosen few who ultimately land the role usually find themselves counting the minutes until the nightmare ends.
“I can’t help but get emotional,” said Levy with a genuine smile when asked about the Italy match.
“To become the national team coach from where I began my career makes this all the more significant in my eyes. I want to reach a situation in which the players feel as proud as I do to be part of the Israel team.”