Gidi Kanuk 311.
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Could it be the water that they drink? Or maybe it has something to do with the
curse that seems to accompany any soccer player wearing the Israel jersey?
Trying to find an explanation for the way Israel’s under-19 national team choked
in such a spectacular manner on Sunday leaves one with more questions than
The target seemed quite simple.
After defeating its Czech
counterpart and losing to Serbia, Israel needed a win over Lithuania to secure a
top two finish and advance from Group 5 of the European Under-19 Championship’s
first qualifying stage.
A victory would have merely seen Israel progress
to the elite round of qualifying in which seven more mini-tournaments will be
played, with the group winners to join the hosts in the annual finals in Estonia
But even with so little on the line, the future of Israeli
soccer crumbled under the pressure.
Lithuania was considered to be the
weakest team in the group, picking up just a single point while failing to score
a goal in its first two qualifiers.
Israel also had the advantage of
hosting the six-day qualifying tournament.
However, Israel’s youngsters
frustratingly displayed the inadequacies we are so used to seeing from the
country’s senior teams over the years, first and foremost failing to cope
mentally with the task on hand.
Israel fell behind to Lithuania in first
half stoppage time in Herzliya, with Deividas Kapustas finding the back of the
But there was renewed hope for the hosts after Haytham Halabi
leveled the score in the 60th minute and the few fans on hand already began
celebrating Israel’s progress when Shahar Hirsh scored with three minutes
However, the party was short lived, with Israel capitulating
like so many times before, allowing Martynas Jefisovas to equalize in the 90th
Israel’s heartbroken players sunk to the ground in despair as the
final whistle was sounded, while coach Eli Ohana desperately looked for the
bright spot of the dejecting 2-2 draw.
“We did everything right in the
second half so this is very frustrating,” said Ohana, who failed to guide the
under-19 team past the first qualifying round in two of three previous
“Nevertheless, I’m proud of the players. We now need to
rebuild the team because these players have played for the under-19 side for the
last time. I hope that in the future we get a slightly easier draw.”
is hardly surprising Ohana failed to get the team to perform when it mattered
most when you consider that he didn’t even know that the draw didn’t end
Israel’s hopes of reaching the elite round.
Apparently, Ohana is not only
a careless coach, but he also pays little attention to the competition’s
Had he done so he would have known that Israel still has a
chance of advancing as the third-placed team with the best record against the
top pair in its group.
As things currently stand, Israel is the best
third-placed side, and as long as results don’t conspire against it in unlikely
fashion on Wednesday, it will continue to the next round.
The only way
Israel can be overtaken is if Luxembourg stuns Georgia and Poland beats Turkey
in the final matches of Group 9.
But even should the team progress as
expected, Sunday’s performance should come as a wake-up call for Israeli
It is one thing to occasionally fail, but when you repeat your
mistakes over and over there is no excuse.
As disappointing as Ohana’s
tenure as the under-19 coach has been since he took charge in 2008, should he
really shoulder all the blame? If the Israel Football Association refuses to
hire a sports psychologist on a full-time basis for its senior team, how can you
expect Ohana’s teenagers to understand the importance of the mental side of the
game? The IFA employed a sports psychologist for the 1970 World Cup, but it has
since inexplicably neglected what is regarded as a crucial part to any success
in modern sports.
Considering the recent history of Israeli soccer, the
IFA needs to set up an entire department of psychologists to accompany each of
the national teams.
Israel has enough talented players to record the
occasional triumph, but it will not do so as long as it ignores its biggest
It is about time the IFA focuses on what is important rather
than passing the buck.
Or perhaps the IFA would rather we believe it is
tainted water or some mystical force that time and again results in Israel’s
national teams collapsing in the moment of email@example.com
Allon Sinai on Twitter: @AllonSinai