The Israel National Soccer Team begins qualification for the 2024 European Championships this weekend when it welcomes Kosovo to the Holy Land on Saturday night at what will surely be a sold out Bloomfield Stadium before heading on the road for a date with Switzerland on Tuesday.
The 17th edition of the Euros will take place in Germany in the summer of 2024 as an expanded field of 24 nations will take part in the tournament. There will be 53 countries participating in the qualification phase as the 10 matchdays will stretch all the way until November with the semifinals and finals of the last places being played in March 2024.
Israel will be playing in Group I together with Romania, Belarus, Andorra along with the aforementioned Kosovo and Switzerland and is expected to find a way to advance to the Euros for the first time in the nation’s history despite the international retirement of marksman Eran Zahavi.
The blue-and-white will be under the direction of head coach Alon Hazan, who will begin his first European Championship campaign on the bench. Together with sports director Yossi Benayoun, the pair has built a team with a mix of veterans and youngsters, some of whom are also heading into their debut European Championships.
Members of the team
The team will be anchored by a young strike-force trio up front in Manor Solomon – who has turned into a legitimate English Premier League star with Fulham – Liel Abada, who plies his trade with Celtic, and Red Bull Salzburg starlet Oscar Gloukh.
“Manor Solomon as a star is not going to be expected to lead the national team to the Euros,” Hazan said, trying to lower expectations. “He’s going to be a part of the national team that can help us advance to the European Championships. We are going to have patience with Oscar Gloukh and he will be someone who will lead this national team, but we have a journey that we are on and that is most important of all.”
Shon Weissman, who transferred from Real Valladolid to Granada in Spain’s second division, and Wolfsberg’s Tai Baribo will also be counted on to pick up the scoring slack without Zahavi.
In goal, there will be a changing of the guard with shot-stopper Ofir Marciano not playing consistently with Feyenoord as Maccabi Tel Aviv ’keeper Daniel Peretz and Beesheba’s Omri Glazer vying for the starting role.
On defense, Beersheba centerback Miguel Vitor will be a main cog while Eli Dasa, who is playing in Russia, will be a reliable right back. However, the balance of the defensive corps is fairly inexperienced with the likes of Danny Grouper, Raz Shlomo, Doron Liedner and Sagiv Yehezkel.
The midfield will be manned by plenty of veterans, including Israeli league stalwarts Dor Peretz, Dolev Haziza and Gaby Kanichowsky along with Neta Lavi, who is currently playing in Japan. As well, up-and-coming Muhammad Jaber, Mohammed Knaan and Omri Gendelman will also feature.
One player who will be making his final appearance for the Israel National Team will be captain Bibras Natcho, who will be hanging up his cleats in his 88th appearance for the blue-and-white. The 35-year-old Partizan Belgrade midfielder scored four goals for Israel and was the nation’s first ever non-Jew to hold the honor of captain.
“Bibras Natcho is one of the best people I have ever encountered,” Benayoun said. “He has been one of the best players and most loyal players for the Israel National Team. He deserves the highest of honors. I tried to convince him to continue. I personally enjoyed every moment that we spent together and he deserves the chance to perform one last time in a game like this one coming up.”
Dasa, who has served as the captain on occasion, spoke about Natcho’s contribution to the national program over the years.
“I can’t say that I’m excited about his departure, in fact, it’s very upsetting. We have spoken a lot about this recently and it’s not simple because he is a very central figure for the national team. He taught me what it means to be a captain and was involved in helping me transfer to play in Russia. Having people like Bibras Natcho shouldn’t be taken for granted.”
“We are obligated to battle for second place in this group,” added Dasa about Israel’s expectations. “However, this won’t be simple, including against Kosovo. We know we have a realistic chance, but we will have to bring our best game in order to accomplish that.”
Weissman also discussed the expectations that Israel is under heading into this tournament.
“I’m happy that there are expectations which means that we have a good national team and that we have set high goals. We will have a packed stadium and because we do we can defeat any team.”
“Israel hasn’t participated in a major tournament in over 40 years,” Miguel Vitor said. “So we can’t be considered favorites. We need to be realistic as Kosovo is at about the same level that we are. But we do have players with quality and modesty with a mix of older and younger guys.”
From Hazan’s perspective, no match will be easy and each opponent presents challenges.
“I’m excited that we have two very important and tough games that are in front of us,” he said. “While Kosovo may not be a big name, they are an excellent national team and it’s not going to be a walk in the park. While there may have been issues leading up to this point, our goal is first and foremost the success of the national team and to record the best possible results.”