A tall order for blue-and-white’s Benayoun

Former star facing many new challenges on and off the pitch as national team technical director.

 YOSSI BENAYOUN (left, in 2011 file photo) is used to his performance speaking for itself on the pitch. His new role with the Israel national team calls for a different set of skills. (photo credit: REUTERS)
YOSSI BENAYOUN (left, in 2011 file photo) is used to his performance speaking for itself on the pitch. His new role with the Israel national team calls for a different set of skills.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

With a pair of international friendlies now behind it, the Israel Football Association and the National Team program has a lot of soul searching to do as it moves forward and heads into Nations League action this coming summer.

Yossi Benayoun, who was recently appointed as the National Team Technical Director, will be a busy man over the next month as he looks to hire a new coach to manage the squad. The former Israeli international must have that person in place sooner rather than later and has set a 30-day deadline to do so.

The selection of the head coach will be crucial should the blue-and-white want to compete at the highest levels, a place that it had been striving to reach over the past 50+ years since the last time it participated in an international tournament – the 1970 Mexico World Cup.

It’s not an easy task to try and take a nation whose priorities are its survival, defense and the protection of its citizens, which saves very little for sports funding, but it is not impossible.

Benayoun replaced Willi Ruttensteiner, who over four years of service to the Israel Football Association definitely made inroads in numerous areas, including advancing some of the country’s younger talents at the senior and junior national team levels.

Maccabi's Yossi Benayoun in action with Norwich's Graham Dorrans. (credit: ACTION IMAGES/DOMINIC EBENICHLER)Maccabi's Yossi Benayoun in action with Norwich's Graham Dorrans. (credit: ACTION IMAGES/DOMINIC EBENICHLER)

Ruttensteiner’s efforts aided the development of such starlets including Manor Solomon and Liel Abada and gives hope to the younger generation of players.

The Austrian’s imprint was all over the style of play the National Team used prior to Benayoun’s arrival, which centered around building up the attack from the back by using three central defenders and two defensive wing backs. This method worked to some extent over Ruttensteiner’s tenure, but there were definitely issues due to the fact that while Israel scored tons of goals – with Eran Zahavi being the chief beneficiary of the offensive style – the defense struggled at times and gave up a boatload of tallies as well.

One of the first things Benayoun did was revert the team back to a traditional 4-4-2 formation, with four defenders manning the backline, which would offer more stability but would also not offer the same attacking ability which had been seen in the past.

To that point, the style worked on one hand against Germany as Israel only allowed two goals against a potent offense and attack, but the blue-and-white also came up empty and not only couldn’t find the back of the goal in that first friendly, but it also couldn’t create chances which left ’keeper Ofir Marciano as a very busy man in goal.

Against Romania, the first half was disastrous as the squad gave up a pair of goals and also couldn’t score. After a number of substitutions to begin the second half, Monas Dabbur – who plays his club soccer at Hoffenheim – scored a brace to finish the game off 2-2 and somewhat saved face at home in front of the blue-and-white faithful in Netanya.

Next, Benayoun made a change on the sidelines for the two friendlies and removed Marko Balbul, who had been working with the National Team and Ruttensteiner over the past year, and in his place he slotted in Gadi Brummer, who has been a loyal foot soldier within the national team system and its youth for some time.

The change was brought about due to the fact that Balbul continued with the program and had a number of the younger players who were ready to feature for Israel’s senior team in the pair of friendlies. However, with the under-21 team on the cusp of qualifying for the 2023 European Championships, Benayoun felt that this was a priority for the Israel Football Association and wanted those players – including Maccabi Tel Aviv’s budding ’keeper Daniel Peretz – with the younger blue-and-white in the qualification games against Poland and Germany.

Balbul refused to do so as his philosophy was to have players advancing and not going backwards. Once a player featured for the senior team, he felt they should not go back to the youth level and should be a part of the full team and wished to use the two friendlies as a base for the national team going forward.

As the two disagreed, Balbul decided to step away from the opportunity, which led to Brummer’s appointment.

Brummer, along with Benayoun and the others who are part of the professional staff, put together their own plans and in essence threw out most of what Ruttensteiner had implemented over four years – a system which also brought much love and respect from the players who were loyal to the Austrian throughout his time with the squad.

Whoever the next coach will be will need to be able to work with Benayoun and will need to have his trust in order to follow his lead. A foreign bench boss has not been ruled out, but an Israeli coach will be the most probable candidate to take the job, with Alon Hazan – who is currently coaching the under-21 team – a possibility along with Roni Levi, who was recently let go by Hapoel Beersheba and is close with Benayoun.

During the game against Romania, Benayoun made his way to the dressing room at halftime to confer with Brummer, which was something that he also confirmed following the game, as the entire staff works together to reach the goals of the game itself and the team as a whole.

This is yet another difference from Ruttensteiner’s time with the team, where he had the last say on any decisions relating to the squad from on-field play to off-field decisions.

However, one attribute that did remain from Ruttensteiner’s time in charge is the desire, drive, confidence and maturity of the players, which was evident in the Romania game despite being in a 2-0 hole. Israel put the deficit aside and played hard throughout the second half, creating chances aplenty in order to earn a draw at the end of the day.

This, in fact, may be the most important and critical change that the Austrian was able to make within the players and may be an everlasting legacy with the blue-and-white program.

In the past, the Israeli players did not have the staying power that they have now vis-à-vis the mental side of the game. Physically, Israel still needs to catch up to the big soccer nations, but mentally it is right up there and that may make all of the difference for the squad going forward.

Benayoun can make all the changes in the world as to the style of play or the philosophical composition of the teams, but the one piece that he will certainly take and carry with him and the team is the fact that attitude has changed. Israel will no longer be satisfied by a good performance that won’t lead to a win – it will only be satisfied with a victory and the drive to be better every single day.

Finally, the one very big elephant left in the room is how Benayoun dealt with the case of Dabbur, which has been hanging over the team for close to a year.

During last May’s flareup with Hamas and Gaza when Israel was indiscriminately attacked, Dabbur – a 29-year-old Israeli-Arab – threw his support behind the terrorists via an Instagram post which raised the ire of his teammates as well as the general Israeli public. He stepped away from the National Team for its games a month later, but returned in September and apologized to his teammates, but also faced the wrath of the fans who booed him every time he touched the ball or scored.

Against Romania, in the wake of the rash of terrorist attacks, there were once again a mix of boos and cheers but the Football Association did no one any favors by not allowing Dabbur to speak to the media after his two-goal performance.

In what could have been a fantastic opportunity to show true unity among the Israel National Team and put this story to bed by sending a crystal-clear message that terror in all shapes and forms would not be tolerated, they decided to stay silent and state that the team would send out a statement in the coming days.

Benayoun, who is no stranger to antisemitic and anti-Israel attacks throughout his career, should have put his foot down right there and then and insisted that Dabbur step in front of the microphones and say what needed to be said.

Dabbur also could have taken the opportunity and initiative to do so. However, both allowed the other Israeli players, including Jews and the team’s Circassian captain Bibras Natcho, to field the questions about why Dabbur would not talk to the press as well as explain his feelings towards the situation, which they insisted were complicated.

With a nation on edge, this was an unfortunate miscalculation and a missed opportunity by Benayoun and Dabbur, as they allowed the situation to continue to fester thinking that by staying silent that would be the best course of action. In fact, this was a disservice to Dabbur as his loyalties will still be questioned by the supporters and even his own teammates.

Due to their inaction, the superstar of Israeli soccer, Zahavi, who was not with the team for these two games sent messages to the national team players which were leaked to the media, that they should all go to social media and use their influence to condemn the attacks.

While most of the players did so, the Arab-Israeli players did not and Zahavi requested again that they do something to help calm the storm. However, a number of them, including Hatem Abd Elhamed, went on the offensive against the star saying that his brother, who had died at the age of 14, saved the lives of Jews as his organs were donated.

If Benayoun wants to build the public’s trust, he will need to take a good hard look at the entire picture and program he has inherited.

Being in charge of any country’s National Team is challenging, but being the head of Israel’s brings that responsibility to a whole new level. He will need to be able to fend off difficult questions and criticism from all corners. But first and foremost he must get his own house in order before he can regain the fans’ support.

As the old story goes, one time a great prime minister met his Israeli counterpart and said: “I am the prime minister of a nation of 50 million people.” To that the Israeli retorted: “That is nothing. I am the prime minister of eight million other prime ministers!”

That is the true challenge that Benayoun has in front of him.