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Israel's national basketball team left for Bulgaria on Wednesday evening, stepping up its preparations for the crucial EuroBasket 2007 last-chance tournament which will begin in exactly three weeks time.
The blue-and-white, which will face Denmark on the road in its first game of the last-chance tournament on August 8, will play three friendly games over the weekend in Bulgaria. On Friday and Saturday the team faces the hosts and on Sunday it will meet Macedonia before returning home later in the day.
"There are no shortcuts. Our goal in this trip is to continue working hard," coach Tzvika Sherf said on Wednesday. "We must continue molding the team and remain committed to the cause."
The national team, which began its training 10 days ago, finished last in its qualifying group last summer, but Sherf is convinced that the result will be different this time around.
"There were many reasons for our failure to reach the European championships via the first qualifying group," he said. "The games weren't played in Israel, we trained during the war in Lebanon and we were downcast for many reasons. The situation has, however, changed, and now we need to play to our potential."
Israel faces Ukraine at the Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv in its second additional qualifying game on August 11 and will also host Belgium and Denmark on August 15th and August 18th respectively. The team will play its final two games away from home, visiting Ukraine on August 22 and playing in Belgium three days later.
Israel will need to finish first in group play in order to qualify for a three-team competition in Madrid later in August. The winner of the three-team contest will advance to the European basketball championships to be held in Spain at the beginning of September.
At the moment, Israel is only set to play three practice games ahead of the last-chance tournament, leaving the team well short of match fitness, according to coach Sherf. Sweden's basketball team was due to come to Israel and play three practice games against the national team, but the Scandinavians surprisingly canceled their visit earlier this week.
"We were shocked by the Swedes cancelation and this causes a big problem," Sherf said. "We have already begun calling teams across Europe because we need more practice games. It's not going to be easy to find a training partner as most teams have already set their schedule for the summer."
The team will have to manage in the last-chance tournament without the injured Tal Burstein and Sharon Sason and will need to receive bigger contributions from players who in the past played no more than a second fiddle.
"Our aim in the practice matches is to show how far we've come since training began," said Ido Kozikaro, who will be one of the players who's expected to play an increased role for the team this summer. "My feeling is that we've improved in the last 10 days and I hope we prove it. We've been working very hard and I hope we return from this training camp a better team. The goal of the team is to be good in a month's time and not now."
American-born Jeron Roberts, who received Israeli citizenship after marrying an Israeli woman, will be making his debut this weekend. Despite being new to the team, Roberts is already well aware that anything short of qualification for EuroBasket 2007 will be regarded as a failure.
"We've practiced hard for 10 days and now we have to bring it all together," he said. "I think we have a good chance. We have a good team, great players and if we play together and fight hard, I think our chances are as good as any. Our first and only goal is to get to the next round, if we don't do that than we'll feel that we didn't succeed."