A game of egos at Israeli soccer’s expense

Blue-and-white earned a banner day when Maccabi Haifa valiantly played Paris Saint-Germain toe-to-toe, despite eventually falling 3-1 to the French champion.

  FOR NO good reason whatsoever – a laughable dispute over hotel rooms – Eran Zahavi’s tenure with the blue-and-white national team appears to be over. (photo credit: Lee Smith/Reuters)
FOR NO good reason whatsoever – a laughable dispute over hotel rooms – Eran Zahavi’s tenure with the blue-and-white national team appears to be over.
(photo credit: Lee Smith/Reuters)

The Israeli sports landscape never ceases to amaze.

This past week, blue-and-white soccer was coming off a banner day when Maccabi Haifa valiantly played Paris Saint-Germain toe-to-toe, earning plaudits from around the globe despite eventually falling 3-1 to the French champion.

Headlines across the continent were all about how the minnow club from Israel had been able to stymie some of the greatest talent put together this century.

Could it be that Israeli soccer had finally reached the highest of heights and made significant steps across Europe?

Has Israeli soccer finally matched Europe?

Unfortunately, those good feelings were wiped away in a matter of seconds. Israeli soccer took what felt like a million steps backward when the Israel Football Association Technical Director Yossi Benayoun and head coach Alon Hazan announced that Maccabi Tel Aviv and National Team superstar striker Eran Zahavi would not be part of the squad for their upcoming Nations League match on Saturday night against Albania and the friendly at Malta a few days later.

Soccer Football - Trophee des Champions - Paris St Germain v Nantes - Bloomfield Stadium, Tel Aviv, Israel - July 31, 2022 Paris St Germain's Lionel Messi during the warm up before the match, July 31, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)Soccer Football - Trophee des Champions - Paris St Germain v Nantes - Bloomfield Stadium, Tel Aviv, Israel - July 31, 2022 Paris St Germain's Lionel Messi during the warm up before the match, July 31, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)

Why, you ask? Simple. Zahavi wanted to continue to have his own hotel room, which has been standard practice for the past four years ahead of the national team games.

In one of the most absurd statements uttered by national team officials, Benayoun and Hazan both made it known loud and clear that they were no longer interested in having their top scorer as part of the blue-and-white ahead of a crucial contest that can give Israel a chance to play in the Nations League playoffs and earn a spot to the 2024 Euros.

The issue of roommates for all national team members came up when Benayoun and Hazan took over the reins for the blue-and-white from Willi Ruttensteiner, who had wooed Zahavi back to the fold after having been out of the team for some time due to having thrown the captain’s armband to the ground when Elisha Levy was the head coach.

Since his return to the squad, Zahavi has set record upon record while wearing the national team uniform, from becoming the all-time scoring leader passing the legendary Mordechai Motelah Spiegler with 33 goals in 70 appearances, to scoring 11 goals in UEFA 2020 European Championship qualifying, which was good for second place together with Cristiano Ronaldo right behind Harry Kane.

Add to that the numerous hat-tricks, game-winning goals and the Israeli striker having scored 91 goals in 106 games in China along with 22 markers for PSV in Holland – not to mention 98 goals in 119 contests for Maccabi Tel Aviv – and Zahavi is a legitimate as a superstar as they come.

He is a scoring machine and one of the most popular Israeli players ever to grace the pitch.

Apparently, Benayoun and Hazan had an issue with that.

National team at its best and worst

What they unfortunately didn’t have an issue with was inviting Maccabi Haifa’s Omer Atzily to the national team while claiming that all of the players in blue-and-white are role models. After Atzily had been embroiled in an underage sex scandal (one that he was not convicted for), the national team can never claim that they are a team of role models should he be a part of the squad.

But that is the national team at its best and worst. Instead of sending a clear and concise message as to what values the national team has, it sent mixed signals.

When Zahavi was left off of the squad list just minutes ahead of the traditional press conference ahead of the international match, some eyebrows were raised and the shock and awe of what transpired afterwards left everyone stunned. It would seem that while the Israel Football Association wants to foster relationships between the younger and older generations, it is more than happy to cut off their nose to spite their face to do so.

While the notion of team unity is admirable, the concept of mandatory hotel roommates are not going to really build those bridges, let’s be honest. The players are with one another for hours upon end during training sessions, video work, meals and more.

Benayoun and Hazan said a number of times that the door is always open for Zahavi to return to the national team and that even captain Bibras Natcho acquiesced to the IFA’s mandate. The management duo also insisted, however, that they would not make any exceptions to the new rules and regulations.

Zahavi almost immediately responded with an Instagram post of his own, stating that it looks like his days with the national team are over and how unfortunate that his time in blue-and-white would end in such fashion.

The Maccabi Tel Aviv striker went on to state that he had not heard about the new mandate from the staff, but from some of the players, and he understood how much the current administration wanted him out. Zahavi explained why he wanted his own hotel room – in order to keep to his schedule ahead of training sessions and games – and even offered to pay for the privilege out of his own pocket.

He continued to say that he went directly to IFA Chairman Oren Hasson, who was unable to convince Benayoun and Hazan to change their minds, and that he understood that at the end of the day what was standing in between his ability to help the national team and going home was a game of ego and the lack of respect as to his contribution to the blue-and-white.

What makes this incident even more shocking is that the IFA is reportedly taking it under consideration to give out single hotel rooms to players with 60 or more national team appearances. Zahavi, of course, is already over that amount, with 70 caps for Israel over his career.

The entire story has bad vibes written all over it and smells fishy.

Did the IFA want to cover up their other decisions? Whether it was calling up Atzily, or not bringing in arguably two of the country’s best young players in Maccabi Tel Aviv’s ’keeper Daniel Peretz as well as yellow-and-blue starlet Oscar Glouch – who was sent to play with the Under-21’s as it prepares for a two-legged Euro 2023 playoff against Ireland – knowing full well that the Zahavi escapade would capture the headlines?

In what was probably Zahavi’s last campaign with Israel, the IFA as it has done so many times before, decided that instead of honoring one of the greatest players of our generation and treat him with the respect that he rightfully deserves, that he would be unceremoniously booted right out the door, which is a shame and a disgrace.

This sad episode shows how small a soccer nation we really are. Instead of celebrating our greats, we treat them like a sack of potatoes. Benayoun, for one, should know exactly how someone like Zahavi should be revered by the national team and the IFA, as he once upon a time also had his own disagreements with the powers that be.

Israeli soccer: Once again a joke

Instead of taking the high road, the IFA’s management decided to go as low as they can go and once again turn Israeli soccer into a joke.

Fans have already come out in disgust against the IFA. Some who purchased tickets to next week’s contest are looking in desperation to sell their tickets, while others have stated that they hope Albania gives us a good lesson. Instead of selling out Bloomfield Stadium, which is returning to host national team games, the IFA might as well move the game down to a facility with a few thousand seats because after this farcical move, they won’t even fill that up.

After such an amazing European night, Israel soccer has stooped down to the bottom of the barrel and that is a shame for all those involved, from the players, the fans, Zahavi and the IFA.

Israel’s athletes will never reach the top of the top and will continue to be mired in mediocrity as long as its sporting associations are run in amateur fashion. Yet, that is precisely what has happened once again.