Israeli soccer team in Russia.
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
A dejected Israel squad arrived in St. Petersburg on Sunday morning, simply hoping to avoid humiliation when it faces Russia on Tuesday.
The 1-1 draw against Azerbaijan at National Stadium in Ramat Gan on Saturday night shattered Israel’s dream of qualifying for a first World Cup since 1970, leaving the blue-andwhite to play for pride in its remaining qualifiers at Russia and against Portugal and Northern Ireland next month.
Even had it beaten Azerbaijan, the national team would have still needed to also defeat either Russia or Portugal to have a realistic chance of finishing in the runners-up position and advancing to the playoffs.
However, even that lingering hope was extinguished on Saturday after Israel could only manage a 1-1 draw against Azerbaijan, as it did in its first qualifier in Baku exactly a year ago.
After claiming all along that he believes Israel could stun the Russians, national team coach Eli Gutman said on Saturday that he is just hoping his squad will avoid an “embarrassment” in St. Petersburg.
Israel was thrashed 4-0 by Russia in Ramat Gan a year ago and midfielder Bibras Natcho knows that the blue-and-white could be humbled yet again if it doesn’t improve significantly on its performance against Azerbaijan.
“Azerbaijan is an inferior side to us, but we played into their hands,” said Natcho, who has played for Russian club Rubin Kazan since 2010.
“We have already suffered at the hands of Russia at home so clearly the same can happen in St. Petersburg. We will be playing for pride. We have dropped points against inferior teams and that is what makes this so disappointing.”
Thirty-year-old Gal Alberman has been part of the national team since 2002, but struggled to explain why Israel constantly comes up short in its attempt to qualify for major tournaments.
“We can’t hide from the truth, we didn’t deserve to beat Azerbaijan and we are the only ones who are responsible for this,” said the Maccabi Tel Aviv midfielder. “It is very hard to explain what happens to us. I have a lot of experience and we keep suffering disappointment in every campaign. I don’t know if the expectations are too high, because we really should have beaten Azerbaijan.
“Nevertheless, we want to continue and represent the country with honor. It won’t be easy against Russia, but I hope we can bounce back.”