(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Israel’s 2018 World Cup qualification opener against Italy on Monday night will be a special occasion for Eran Zahavi for more reasons than one.
He will not only be making his first appearance in Israel since moving to Guangzhou R&F in China from Maccabi Tel Aviv in late June, but will also be serving as captain in a qualifier for the first time.
Zahavi cemented his status as the best Israeli player of his generation over the past three years, scoring 100 league goals in 120 appearances for Maccabi since joining in 2013, including a record 35 goals last season.
He has also quickly settled in China after moving to Guangzhou for a transfer fee estimated at $8 million, scoring 11 goals in 11 matches to date.
However, he has struggled to display his top form with the national team since making his debut six years ago, netting just five goals in 31 appearances.
Zahavi is hoping that will change as he takes on added responsibility both on and off the pitch in 2018 World Cup qualification. Israel’s hopes of reaching the World Cup for the first time since 1970 were already all but dashed after being paired with former holders 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.
Zahavi is hoping that the blue-and-white will at least show it can compete against the very best in a campaign that will run until October 2017 while displaying consistent improvement.
“We are embarking on a new course against an Italy team that is the clear favorite to win,” he said on Thursday. “But we will not give up without a fight and we want to show that we are a brave team. I don’t want to suffer a comfortable 2-0 loss. If we end up losing, I want it to be after we have shown that the Israel national team plays with passion and courage and that the fans enjoyed themselves.”
Zahavi also spoke about his role as captain.
“It is an honor for me to be the captain,” he noted. “This position requires me to display leadership throughout the week leading up to the match and help every player both on and off the field.”
Zahavi wants Israel to follow in the footsteps of group opponent Albania, which went from being one of the worst national teams in Europe to qualifying for Euro 2016.
“Albania is my model. A national team with many players who play in the biggest leagues in Europe,” he explained. “That is what we should be aspiring for, even if it won’t happen during my time with the team.
No one expects Israel to reach the World Cup from a group which includes Spain and Italy. Israel needs to aim to have a team that works hard against superior opponents and doesn’t lose to inferior ones because that is how you ultimately qualify for a major tournament.”