On March 20, 2012, the UEFA executive committee awarded Israel the right to host the European Women’s Under-19 champion - ship Finals.
As the host nation, the Israel national team was granted an automatic berth in the finals. It was just as well, as the blue-and-white teenagers had never even come close to qualifying for the tournament in the past.
The underdevelopment of women’s soccer in Israel was clearly apparent in the results the team recorded against its European opponents, including those foes hardly known for their sporting prowess.
It was blatantly obvious that drastic measures were required in order to bring the local girls up to scratch with the other seven teams that will participate in the European championship.
An academy was set up at the Wingate institute and former Beitar Jerusalem and Hapoel Beersheba men’s coach Guy Azouri accepted the challenge to oversee the project as well as act as the coach of the Under-17 and Under-19 national women’s teams.
Two years of hard work later, Israel hosts Sweden in Lod on Wednesday in the opening day of the championships, hoping to prove that it can compete with Europ's best.
Seven teams from a record-equaling field of 48 joined host Israel in the 12-day tournament, with Group a to include the blue-and-white, Sweden, three-time winner France and Denmark. The host will become the 26th nation to play in the finals, but will not find things easy in a group with former champions France and Sweden, as well as a Danish side which knocked out last year’s champion, the Netherlands, in qualifying. Three days after facing Sweden, Israel plays France in Netanya on Saturday before coming up against Denmark in Lod next Tuesday.
In Group B , the tournament’s most successful side – four-time winner Germany – will meet England, Norway and last year’s beaten finalist Spain.
The top two from each group will advance to the semifinals, with the final to be played in Netanya on July 27. apart from Netanya and Lod, matches will also take place in Ramla and Rishon l ezion.
“We’ll be facing teams which are not just among the best in Europe, but the best in the world,” Azouri told media representatives ahead of the tournament. “These are teams with tradition and ability which are superior to us in every facet of the game. We will also be the youngest ever team in the tournament’s history and the gaps are clear.
However, our team has made great progress in the academy over the past two years.”
i n order to understand the magnitude of the task facing Azouri and the girls one need only to look at their predecessors results in recent qualifying campaigns. Israel finished the euro 2014 qualifiers with three defeats from three matches and a combined goal difference of 0-18. The blue-and-white lost all three games in euro 2013 qualification as well, failing to score and con ceding nine goals.
Israel did at least manage to net a single goal in Euro 2012 qualifying, but it yet again lost all three of its matches.
In an effort to bridge the gap in quality established over the years, the top local talent was brought to the boarding academy by Azouri to maximize the time ahead of the championship. The players went from training twice a week with their local club sides to nine sessions over five days every week.
“These girls worked really intensively for the past two years,” Azouri added. “They want to show how far they have come. We have no fantasies of reaching the semis, but we certainly want to show we can compete respectively at this level.
“ i started completely from scratch,” explained Azouri. “We had to teach them how to be professionals and what it takes to be a top athlete.
“These girls have been through a lot and have overcome a lot of difficulties. This is a very difficult age with many problematic elements connected with puberty. So they have had to deal with a lot and have coped with it very well.”
Azouri initially turned down the coaching offer by then Israel Football Association chairman Avi Luzon. However, after further consideration he agreed, a decision which completely changed his perspective on women’s soccer.
“I knew nothing about women’s soccer beforehand. These have been the most intensive years of my career,” he said. “These girls left their homes and came to Wingate and gave their all. All the hard work will eventually come down to 270 minutes on the field. We hope this tournament can change women’s soccer in Israel.”
Azouri said he watched every single player in Israel in the appropriate age group before selecting who to invite to the academy and he also flew to North America in order to strengthen the squad. Azouri recruited seven Jewish players from the US and Canada, with the side also including two Israeli- Arab girls.
“These girls are the future of women’s soccer in Israel,” noted Azouri. “They are the role models for all the girls who want to play soccer.”
One of those role models is captain Shai Pearl.
“Everyone has given up a lot to make our dream come true,” she told UEFA.com. “We’ve been together for two years. We depend on each other and that makes us much closer. We believe in ourselves.”
The Under-19 team played in the Israeli Premier league in order to gain match experience this past season, finishing in fifth place out of nine teams.
“We proved to everyone how well we can play. i t was very exciting,” said Pearl. “They’re older players and they’ve been playing for a long time, but we learned how to go through the season as a team. Now we can show what we learned.”
Despite Azouri’s warnings regarding the inferiority of the Israeli side, Pearl’s youthful optimism allows her to believe anything is possible.
“We hope to make it through the group stage so women’s football will be even more popular, and even more people will know about it and be proud of us,” she said.
Women’s soccer in Israel may still have a long way to go before it catches up with Europe’s best. However, great strides are finally being made, none more significant than this month’s European championship finals, an ideal catalyst for future success.
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