Eran Zahavi, Lior Refaelov and Eliran Atar have one thing in common beyond being among the most talented Israeli soccer players of their generation.
They have all managed to fall out of favor with Israel national team coach Eli Gutman during the blue-and-white’s fledgling Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.
Perhaps they are all troublemakers. Or maybe they personify the spoiled nature of the 21st century sports star who must have everything his own way.
But what if the problem lies elsewhere? What if Gutman is to blame for the continuous childish bickering between the coach and the players? He may well be the saint he is portrayed to be by the Israel Football Association PR staff, but these recent incidents surely raise many question marks regarding his management skills.
Israel’s perfect start to its qualifying campaign has ensured that any resentment towards the coach has gone largely unnoticed. After all, as bitter as some of the national team’s players may be, they know how ridiculous they would look criticizing the coach with the blue-and-white sitting atop Group B with nine points from three matches.
Israel can take a massive step towards qualification for its first major tournament since the 1970 World Cup when it hosts Wales at Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa on Saturday and Belgium at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem three days later.
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 for four qualifying spots.
Every Israeli player wants to be part of what would be an historic achievement, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t those who are just waiting for the right opportunity to vent their frustrations.
It has already happened with Zahavi and Refaelov in November, and most recently with Atar.
After reading reports containing anonymous sources blaming his unprofessionalism for his absence from the 25-man squad for the upcoming qualifiers, Atar decided to react with a scathing statement against Gutman.
Reports surfaced of a conversation between the striker and Gutman held in last week’s preliminary training session in which he demanded to receive clarifications regarding his role within the team.
According to the reports, Gutman was generally unhappy with Atar’s attitude last week, claiming he refused to wear shin pads and activate his GPS tracker during the session, and as a result he chose not to call him up.
It was later revealed that Atar’s GPS tracker was simply malfunctioning, but that didn’t stop the IFA from using it as an excuse.
“First of all, I’d like to clarify that I respect and accept the decision not to call me up. However, and it is important for me that everyone knows this, I will not accept being called unprofessional,” Atar’s statement read.
The in-form Maccabi Haifa striker, who has scored five goals in his past six matches after only joining the club in January, went on to explain how he gives his all in every training session and how soccer is his livelihood and love before taking aim at Gutman.
“I expected Eli Gutman to be fair and honest enough with me during our conversation and let me know of his real intentions. I decided to hold the talk with Gutman to explain how I felt. I asked to know about my status, but didn’t request any guarantee I would play.
“It is regrettable that our conversation was leaked and it is regrettable that my attitude and conduct in the dressing room is being talked about,” he added.
“I’m committed wherever I am and all the talk about me and the way I affect the social fabric of the squad is a non-serious way to explain my absence. I guess dominant players like myself and Yossi Benayoun don’t suit the coach and that is the reason.”
Atar, who has only made three appearances for the blue-and-white, the last of which was more than two years ago, concluded his statement by wishing the team luck and saying he is certain he will be back on the squad one day.
After making the initial mistake of anonymously attacking Atar in the media, the national team’s PR staff took it one step further by choosing to reply to the striker with a vindictive statement.
“Atar can only blame himself for leaking the conversation with Gutman,” the statement read. “Someone who pretends to present himself as an honest man can’t act so hypocritically. It is Atar’s full right to speak of his feelings with the coach and it is also his right to leak the content of the conversation, which is what he chose to do.
“His attempt to escape responsibility with an untrue statement and his attempt to hurt the team’s preparations for two such important matches for Israeli soccer prove how correct the coach was not to call him up.”
The statement, which was obviously released with the consent of Gutman, went on to blame Atar for putting himself ahead of the team’s interests and suggested he should make the most of his time with Haifa teammate Benayoun to learn from the captain after claiming that both he and the legendary midfielder were not named in the squad for the same reason.
Benayoun has yet to make any comment on the matter, but it would seem strange Atar would use his name without first getting his approval.
Assuming that is indeed the case, Gutman has made himself a powerful enemy in Benayoun, who has so far made sure to react diplomatically whenever asked about missing out on a place on the blue-and-white squad.
The real problem with the Atar incident is that it was only the latest in a growing list of similar bust-ups between Gutman and his players.
Prior to Israel’s previous Euro 2016 qualifier against Bosnia and Herzegovina in November, Club Brugge midfielder Lior Refaelov reacted with an uncharacteristic outburst after a conversation he had with Gutman was leaked.
“I suggested to Eli that he let us know in advance who will start the match and I don’t understand how such a conversation made its way to the media,” he said. “That shouldn’t happen and it upsets me that a one-on-one talk is leaked.”
A few days earlier, there was further proof of the lack of communication between the coach and his players.
It began with Eran Zahavi criticizing Gutman and the Israel Football Association for failing to speak out and support him after he was attacked by a Hapoel Tel Aviv fan during a derby match in November.
Gutman responded immediately, saying he had sent Zahavi a text message, which the midfielder must have missed, before adding that Eran’s comments were “unfair” to the coach and his teammates and that “only time will tell if we will be able to put this behind us.”
The two eventually talked over the phone and reconciled over lunch, but the fact that Gutman managed to even fall out with a player he nurtured since their days together at Hapoel Tel Aviv spoke loudly of his struggles to keep his squad happy.
One of the most common accusations leveled at Gutman is that he shows favoritism towards players he guided at Hapoel between 2007 and 2011.
Zahavi, Bibras Natcho, Gili Vermouth, Itay Shechter and Ben Sahar are ever present in Gutman’s squads as long as they are healthy, often seemingly regardless of their form at the time.
The fact that the out-of-sorts Shechter was called up while Atar wasn’t, surely was one of the reasons behind the latest squabble. And the decision to start with Vermouth rather than Refaelov against Bosnia was why the latter spoke out against Gutman.
Vermouth’s absence with an ankle injury means the red-hot Refaelov is finally set to start against Wales on Saturday, but Gutman is treading a thin line as the frustration continues to grow in the squad.
Fingers are crossed that Israel will continue to win and go on to qualify for the European Championships for the first time ever. For if the team’s results take a turn for the worse, Gutman could find out just how quickly he will transform from hero to zero in the eyes of all Israeli soccer email@example.com