New-look Israel preps for pair of qualifiers

With outside chance of making basketball World Cup, blue-and-white tips off vs Slovenia, Sweden.

  GUY GOODES shares a laugh at an Israel national team practice ahead of the blue-and-white’s pair of World Cup qualifiers this weekend, against Slovenia and Sweden (photo credit: JOSHUA HALICKMAN)
GUY GOODES shares a laugh at an Israel national team practice ahead of the blue-and-white’s pair of World Cup qualifiers this weekend, against Slovenia and Sweden
(photo credit: JOSHUA HALICKMAN)

The Israel National Team will get back to business this week as it takes on Slovenia at home on Friday afternoon and Sweden on Sunday.

The pair of qualification matches are the latest on the road to the FIBA World Cup as the blue-and-white attempts to find a way into the tournament slated for 2023 in the Philippines, Japan, and Indonesia.

Israel heads into this window of qualifiers with a record of 3-5 and four games remaining in which it will most probably need to run the table all to qualify for the world championships.

However, the team that head coach Guy Goodes will be fielding will be without the stars that played in this past summer’s Eurobasket due to their unavailability – whether it’s Deni Avdija who is with the NBA’s Washington Wizards to Tamir Blatt, Yovel Zoosman, and Yam Madar, who are playing in the Euroleague.

In addition, the absence of veteran captain Gal Mekel, who retired from the game of basketball, as well as Guy Pnini, who is still playing but hung up his national team sneakers, will also leave a leadership vacuum on the team.

Instead, the squad will be littered with many younger players, some of who will be making their international debut, as there will be only four individuals who were with the team over the summer in Prague.

Hapoel Tel Aviv’s Tomer Ginat was appointed captain, taking over from Mekel, and for the 28-year-old forward this was the culmination of a dream.

“It’s exciting and to become captain is really amazing. We have a lot of work and we have to focus on the next two games and go from there. But it’s an honor and the best thing in Israeli sports. I’m happy that I can be a big part of the national team as every young child playing basketball looks to this as the ultimate goal.”

Ginat will be guiding a very young group of players and he is also aware that he will need to draw upon the many years of experience he has had in the game and looks back at the influence of the veterans he has played with.

“I’m sure they will be missing and I feel a responsibility to this generation as do the other players who have been part of the team in the past. I was with several great captains and veterans in my day, whether it was Mekel, Pnini, Matan Naor, Bar Timor, and others. I have taken a lot from them and I hope that I can use all that myself going forward. We all want to carry this forward and the national team is much bigger than all of us.”

Goodes, who will try to get the blue-and-white to the promised land, understands full well that he has his hands full with many unknowns circling around the team.

“It’s a pretty new squad with only a few players from the Eurobasket,” noted the 51-year-old coach. “There’s some that are here for the first time with the Israel National Team and to be a part of that is very special, which is the goal of any young Israeli basketball player. Lots of new faces and we are going into this window against Slovenia, who we haven’t faced before, and Sweden, who we will play for the second time. But we just need to win. We will battle as always and do what we need to do in order to win these games.”

Dealing with a short preparation time

Having just come off the Eurobasket, which saw the squad train for a month before heading out to Prague for five group-stage games, Goodes knows that he has to switch gears in order to deal with two games for which he has had a very short preparation period.

“You have to separate these midseason windows from the Eurobasket, which you work and prepare for over a month. You need to be prepared both mentally and physically for this change as the windows are totally different and you have only a few days to get together and in this case, we have several young players. It’s going to be a challenge because the squads are also so different with many of the players we had over the summer unavailable for the national team now.”

With the change of the guard in Israeli basketball occurring at this point in time, Goodes will need to also adjust and have patience with his players as he won’t have the old guard to fall back on in times of need.

Whether it’s at a crucial moment near the end of the game or the need for some on-court leadership when things get a bit tricky when the momentum swings the other way.

“I think that the national team is going through a change with Mekel and Pnini retiring. We have a lot of work to do and each one of these windows has a life of its own. But I’m happy we always want to improve our standing and the younger guys will have this opportunity that they can grab with both hands and maximize.”

Mekel and Pnini were stalwarts with the blue-and-white and played with the national team for more than a decade. Their presence will undoubtedly be missed by the team and by Goodes, who spoke about the time he had to spend with the pair.

“I have to say thank you to Gal Mekel, which for me personally was the first time in my career that I coached him. I saw that well beyond the player that he is, a person who loves the game and plays the game to the best of his ability as a professional at the highest of levels.”

“As for Guy, he didn’t even know if he would be a part of the Eurobasket squad this summer and he didn’t want to be a liability. I told him that it would be the contrary as he would be an asset. He gave so much to Israel and I had the honor to be with him both on the national team and at Holon. I have to say thanks to them both for their huge contribution.”

Just as the games are about to tip-off, Ginat knows that Israel needs to win and nothing else will suffice should it want to survive and make it to the final window with a chance to punch its ticket to the World Cup.

One step at a time for the squad

“You can always think big, but we have to really focus on the next game on Friday versus Slovenia and just try to win that one and then do the same in Sweden. We want to get to February and still have a chance.”

Goodes sees that while his team is far different from the one he had over the summer, that is also the case with his opponents and the other teams across the continent. In essence, it’s a level playing field and the bench boss doesn’t see any reason why his Israel team can’t take that next step.

“This is the case for both sides, a totally different roster of players and that’s with all the teams, like Germany as well. It’s not the first time that we are dealing with this and that’s the situation with these windows. But there are no vacuums in sports and someone will come in and take the baton and rise to the occasion. The Slovenians have some very good players and we want to do as best as we can on Friday and have a full house. We still have a chance in our World Cup qualifying campaign and we want to do this."