(photo credit: AP)
Israel's national soccer team held on Monday evening its first training session in preparation for its Euro 2008 qualifier against England on Saturday.
Yossi Benayoun, who arrived from London earlier in the day, suffered no reoccurrence of the knee injury which has kept him out of West Ham's lineup the last three weeks and had no trouble completing the session.
Besides Deportivo La Coru a goalkeeper Dudu Awat, who landed in Israel only a couple of hours before training began, the entire squad began its preparations for the match under the watchful eye of coach Dror Kashtan.
"The match against England is one of the most important games of this campaign," Kashtan said. "England is one of the best teams in the world. We watch their players in the [English] Premier League every week and their qualities are well known."
The coach feels that even with England's difficulties lately, the visitors are still far superior to his side. "Even by its recent results, England is better than Israel. We are facing a very difficult match. Israel will have to be at its best to get a result."
Benayoun was optimistic on Monday that he will once again recover in time to play for Israel and is expected to captain the side in the match against England and then four days later against Estonia.
"The injury is getting better," Benayoun said. "I haven't played in three weeks and I'm feeling better. I received an injection a few days ago so I could train today.
"I plan to train all week and I believe I'll be OK by the weekend."
Kashtan rejected criticism of his decision to drop Michael Zandberg from the squad and insisted that the player is not part of the team because of his recent dip in form. "We felt that Zandberg was going through a rough patch and that's why we decided not to call him up," he stated.
"The decision was a professional one and all the speculation surrounding Zandberg is unwarranted."
Figures from the Tel Aviv Hotels Association show that some 12,000 hotel stays have been reserved by England fans for March 22-25. In comparison, during the whole of March 2006, 9,000 hotel stays were booked by Britons visiting the city.
"We expect some 5,000 fans will come out from England for this key match," British Ambassador to Israel Tom Phillips said. "This event will showcase all that Tel Aviv, and indeed Israel, has to offer to thousands of people who have never visited this part of the world before, as well as the excellent ties that exist between Israel and the whole of the United Kingdom."
The Histadrut's threat of a general strike on Wednesday is raising serious concern at the Israel Football Association headquarters, with new IFA chairman Avi Luzon determined to avoid a situation in which thousands of England fans will not be able to attend the match because of a strike at Ben-Gurion Airport.
"I've requested an urgent meeting with Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini and will ask that the festivities will not be affected, so we don't look like a Third World country," Luzon said.
The Histadrut promised the IFA that the England team would be allowed to land even if the strike goes ahead, but would not guarantee that visiting fans would be able to enjoy the match at Ramat Gan.
"A Third World country is a country in which thousands of workers don't receive their salary," the Histadrut said in a statement. "The most important thing for the public is that the match goes ahead, which is not in doubt."