It used to be the job every Israeli coach aspired to.
The peak of their professional pursuits.
But the allure of being the head coach of the Israel national soccer team has worn off to such an extent that not only are candidates doing their best to avoid the position, but it has earned a reputation of being a coaching graveyard.
It is probably unreasonable to expect the blue-and- white’s most recent coach, Elisha Levy, to have already found another job after his tenure only officially ended three months ago. However, there seems to be little coincidence in the fact that the three coaches that preceded him in the job – Dror Kashtan, Luis Fernandez and Eli Gutman – have never gotten their careers back on track. While Kashtan was 65 years old when his time with the side came to an end, Fernandez, Gutman and Levy are all 60 or younger.
In the cases of Gutman and Levy, they were the obvious and unanimous choices for the position.
That didn’t help them avoid becoming some sort of pariahs by the time their contracts with the blue-and-white ran out.
It is with this in mind that the Israel Football Association officially began its search for the next national team coach last week.
With the team not having any matches since Levy’s contract ended in October, and with the side’s next competitive game not coming until September, the IFA decided it might as well save some money by postponing the decision.
In fact, the next coach isn’t set to begin his tenure until next summer, meaning an interim replacement will guide the team in the friendly match against Romania in March. It is the exact same situation that occurred two years ago, when Alon Hazan, then the coach of the under-17 national team, was asked to guide the senior side for a few days for its friendly against Croatia.
Hazan, who has since been promoted to coach the under-19 side, could well be called upon once more for the Romania game.
Following the national team’s recent disappointments, the IFA decided to first set up a fourman committee – consisting of Beitar Jerusalem boss and former national team player Eli Ohana, former Israel midfielder Haim Revivo, Dr. Itzik Ben Melech, one of the founders of Israel’s Elite Sport Department and Gutman – to examine the reasons behind the blue-and-white’s recent failures.
While it is clear to almost everyone that the main reason for Israel’s shortcomings is the lack of adequate infrastructure and suitable coaching at the grassroots level that have resulted in a proportionally small pool of talented local players, there is also little doubt that a lot more can be achieved with the current crop of players.
This is especially true when considering the new low reached by the national team in its 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.
With Israel being drawn with both Spain and Italy in Group G, expectations from Levy’s side were extremely low. But after a relatively encouraging start which included three straight wins over Macedonia, Liechtenstein and Albania, on the back of a 3-1 loss to Italy in the opener, the blue-and-white completely capitulated in the second half of its campaign.
Israel dropped to four consecutive defeats, equaling its worse run of losses since joining UEFA in 1992. The streak began with a 4-1 thrashing in Spain in March and was followed by a 3-0 home loss to Albania and 1-0 defeats to Macedonia and Italy.
It was finally snapped with a 1-0 win over Liechtenstein, but the blue-and-white yet again failed to find the back of the net in its final qualifier against Spain in Jerusalem last October, losing 1-0 for its fourth home defeat in five matches.
The disappointment on the pitch was accompanied by disarray off it.
Levy called up 56 different players during his short stint, and time and again the campaign was overshadowed by disciplinary incidents, the highlight of which being the tossing of the captain’s armband by Eran Zahavi and his ultimate retirement from the national side.
The recent dejecting performances by the blue-and-white make any talk regarding qualification for a major tournament seem like a joke.
But the fact of the matter is that the blue-andwhite will have its best-ever opportunity, at least on paper, to reach a tournament at Euro 2020, 50 years after its one and only appearance at the 1970 World Cup.
The European Championships will once more include 24 teams, meaning the top two in each of the qualifying groups, which get under way in March 2019, will be guaranteed a place in the tournament that will be held in 12 different cities across the continent.
For the first time, there will also be an additional route via UEFA’s new competition, the Nations League. Israel was drawn last week with Scotland and Albania in Group Four of League C of the four-tier tournament introduced by UEFA to replace international friendlies. The Nations League provides a back door to Euro 2020, with one team from each league earning a place at UEFA’s flagship tournament.
In each league, the four group winners enter a playoff system, consisting of two semifinals and a final. The ultimate winner will qualify for Euro 2020. Israel will play all of its matches over a two-and-a-half-month period starting in September.
Israel visits Albania in its opener on September 7, hosts Scotland on October 10 and Albania three days later, before ending group action with a visit to Scotland on November 20.
Considering the team’s recent campaign, another chance to qualify for the Euros looks destined to be just another opportunity for a fiasco.
But for any coach considering succeeding Levy, it does provide some additional incentive.
The problem is that the list of potential candidates is both short and unimpressive, and so the IFA looks set to go with a default choice yet again.
The dream successor is Hapoel Beersheba coach Barak Bachar. However, the 38-year-old, who has guided Beersheba to the past two Premier League titles, has no intention of disrupting his rise to the top by accepting the Israel job. Not to mention he would also need to take a significant pay cut, with Levy earning in the region of NIS 550,000 a year before tax.
Gutman’s salary was double that, but the IFA’s financial difficulties meant it could scarcely afford continuing to fork out so much for such a parttime position. The IFA is believed to have a slightly bigger budget this time around, but still not enough to bring in a decent foreign candidate.
With Bachar out of the picture and a foreigner unlikely to come, the IFA is left with few undesirable options. Bnei Yehuda coach Yossi Abuksis looks to be the top choice, with Hapoel Haifa’s Nir Klinger and Ronny Levy, who currently coaches Anorthosis Famagusta in Cyprus, looking like the most likely candidates after that.
It is a far from inspiring list, but the national team really deserves no better. All three have plenty of experience coaching mediocre teams, and they will be doing exactly that if they work with the Israel squad. It would also likely lower the expectations from the blue-and-white even further, which can only be a good thing on the back of such a disastrous campaign.
It should be clear by now that the Israel national team’s immediate prospects are far from bright.
At least the appointment of the next coach should ensure there are no illusions otherwise.