The Last Word: If we will it, the Swiss will fall again

Switzerland's poor Euro 2008 display should boost Israel's confidence ahead of 2010 World Cup campaign.

jeremy last 88 (photo credit:)
jeremy last 88
(photo credit: )
As Switzerland's European Championship campaign came to an abrupt end in Basel on Wednesday night, one was immediately drawn to the significance of the venue and the possible implications the result could have for Israel's future. The host nation played both of its first two games in the city where the Jewish state was conceived 111 years ago, when Theodor Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress. The 1897 gathering in the concert hall of the Basel Municipal Casino began a process which changed the face of history, climaxing in the 1948 declaration of the State of Israel. In the soccer context, the losses the Swiss suffered at the hands of the Czech Republic on Saturday night and Turkey on Wednesday could eventually change history too. Israel is in the same qualifying group as Switzerland for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and the poor display its national team put on in its two games in Basel illustrated the level of opposition the Israelis will need to overcome to make it to the most important sporting event on the planet. After suffering the difficulties of battling in groups alongside world class sides such as France, Ireland, England and Croatia in recent years and coming so close, Dror Kashtan's troops finally have a chance to make it to the Mondial for only the second ever time and the first since 1970. The race begins on September 6 when Israel hosts Switzerland at National Stadium in Ramat Gan. The task for Israel won't be easy. Only the group winner will qualify automatically for the World Cup finals with the eight best runners-up from the nine European qualifying groups going into a two-legged play-off for the remaining four spots. This means that Israel must come first in the six-team group after a tough 10-game schedule over 13 months which will include home and away games against Luxembourg, Moldova and Latvia as well as Switzerland and Greece. But from the evidence in Basel this week, and with all due respect to the other Group B members, it is likely that the Greeks will be Israel's only real challengers for the top spot. Over the 180 minutes of play, coach Kobi Kuhn's Swiss team illustrated how it is not good enough to play with the big boys and was lucky to be able to participate in such a high level competition as Euro 2008 by virtue of being one of the two co-hosts along with Austria. Yes, against the Czechs Switzerland put some nice passing moves together, but it lacked that all important killer instinct. The team just didn't look like scoring and was punished for its weakness up front when substitute Václav Sverkos scored the only goal in the 71st minute. On Wednesday Switzerland was even worse and only benefited from the atrocious weather conditions at St. Jakob-Park. Its only goal of the tournament so far came after the ball stopped dead in front of the goal on the rain sodden pitch, making it easy for veteran striker Hakin Yakin to knock it in. Turkey's injury time winner, scored by Ardan Turan, was justice done for the visitors. Switzerland is a team of underachievers and should prove perfect fodder for Israel in three months time. "We wanted to make history, but we went out," captain Ludovic Magnin said after the game, referring to the fact that Switzerland has never won a game in the European Championship finals. Greece has also shown so far that it is far from the team which won the Euros in Portugal four years ago. Its meek performance in a 2-0 defeat to Sweden on Tuesday, which included an appalling goalkeeping blunder, added to the hope that must exist in the Israel camp. If Israel does qualify for South Africa 2010 the achievement will far outweigh that of Emmanuel Sheffer's team of 38 years ago. Back then all Israel had to do to ensure qualification for Mexico 70 from the Oceania region was first beat New Zealand over two legs and then Australia. Not simple, especially considering the time differences, but nothing like the task Israel has taken on since being accepted as a member of UEFA, European soccer's governing body, in 1991. Making it to the World Cup won't be easy, but this is Israel's chance, and just maybe, in the future, historians will look back to these games played in Basel in June 2008 as the start of something great. The significance of having a team from the Jewish state at the world's most watched sporting event could do wonders for Israel's image, showing to the massive international audience that the country isn't just a place of war. And it would also showcase the great soccer talents we have, from Benayoun to Bruchian, Strul to Sahar. As Herzl said, if you will it, it is no dream. jeremylast@gmail.com