Blue-and-white playing with house money

Haim has U20 National Team riding crazy hot streak heading into World Cup semifinal vs Uruguay

Picture of Israel head coach Ofir Haim celebrating with Anan Khalaili (photo credit: AGUSTIN MARCARIAN/REUTERS)
Picture of Israel head coach Ofir Haim celebrating with Anan Khalaili

If someone had told head coach Ofir Haim that his Israel Under-20 National Team would be on the cusp of making history and just two wins away from winning the World Cup, he probably would have said that they were living in a fantasy world.

However, when his squad takes on Uruguay in the semifinals at the Estadio Único Diego Armando Maradona in La Plata, Argentina, on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. Israel time, that fantasy could move much closer to becoming reality.

The blue-and-white have shocked the international soccer world by advancing all the way to the final four, where it will have an opportunity to punch its ticket to the final of the competition and play against the winner of the other semifinal between Italy and South Korea.

Should Israel fall to “La Celeste” it will feature in the third-place match

However, at this stage of the game, or shall we say the tournament, there is absolutely no reason to doubt Haim’s charges, who are now unbeaten in four straight games after losing in the opener to Colombia. Following the dramatic defeat, the U20s drew 1-1 with Senegal before taking out Japan, Uzbekistan and the favorites Brazil in stunning fashion that has made headlines around the globe.

While the players on the pitch have earned rave reviews, be it Dor Turgeman who scored one of the competition’s finest goals to Anan Khalaili and Omer Senior’s dramatic strikes, it has been the man in charge, Haim, who has been the puppeteer pulling all of the strings behind the curtain just like the Wizard of Oz.

 ISRAELI TEAM members celebrate after the quarterfinal victory over Brazil at the FIFA U20 World Cup Argentina 2023 on Saturday. (credit: AGUSTIN MARCARIAN/REUTERS)
ISRAELI TEAM members celebrate after the quarterfinal victory over Brazil at the FIFA U20 World Cup Argentina 2023 on Saturday. (credit: AGUSTIN MARCARIAN/REUTERS)

Haim has been the conductor of the orchestra in every way, shape and form as his passion, love for the game and all-around devotion to his craft has been addictive for both his players and fans alike. The squad’s desire and drive to succeed is a mirror image of its head coach.

The 48-year-old Rishon Lezion native was a prolific striker in his day as a player scoring close to 150 goals in his career that spanned from 1993-2012 having played with Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Beersheba among the many teams he featured for. Following his playing days, he went immediately into coaching having most recently managed Hapoel Tel Aviv and Hapoel Kfar Saba before joining the National Team program in 2021.

Haim is a unique figurehead for the players and is known to be a master motivator, having been able to guide the youngsters throughout the competition in the best way possible. Just ahead of the critical semifinal contest, the bench boss spoke about how some of his players have a bright future ahead of them, but prefers to right now focus on the task at hand which is to defeat Uruguay, which will not be an easy task.

“The players have been managing themselves at the highest possible level and they know how to make the switch,” Haim began. “While there is euphoria and excitement, they know how to come prepared properly to the next game. I believe that Israeli soccer has been developing nicely, but I am not looking too much down the road as we have to get ready for the semifinals. I am not even looking at another role that I can play in the soccer world as I am focusing on just the Under-20 team.”

Uruguay defeated Iraq 4-0, downed Tunisia 1-0 but fell to England 3-2 in its group stage games. In the Round of 16, it got by Gambia 1-0 and then blanked the United States 2-0 on goals by Anderson Duarte and an own-goal to advance to the semifinals.Back in 2013, Uruguay finished the World Cup in second place while in 2017 it ended its run in fourth. So Haim is well aware that the challenge ahead is a great one, but he has been working with the players and his staff to ensure that they will be in top shape come Thursday.

“We have a terrific professional staff with us as well as a medical staff that know how to make sure that we are prepared. The guys are eating well and are getting enough sleep. This is a very tough competition and I believe that we will come into the game ready to go. The players are giving me the confidence that we can do anything.”

Haim believes that one of the keys to the team’s success is the relationships that he has built over the past couple of years ahead of the World Cup.

“I always want to have a close relationship with the guys and even closer than most coaches as we meet after training sessions as well. I really believe that the coach needs to get to know each and every one of their players personally.”

While most of the players on the Uruguay squad are playing domestically, it already has two who are playing significant roles in some of the best leagues in the world, as Facundo Gonzales plies his trade in Spain’s La Liga with Valencia and Alan Matturo from Genoa in Italy’s Serie A.

But Haim is not going to let that scare him as he believes that at least a half a dozen of his Under-20 players can play with the country’s senior Israel National Team.

“I am sure that the Senior National Team will be ready for its upcoming games and I am in contact with [head coach] Alon Hazan. My goal is to see as many players as possible from the Under-20 team on the Senior squad. I really believe in my players and that at least six of them can integrate into the senior team.”

Just as the young blue-and-white take to the pitch, there is no reason to doubt that this team can’t win it all. The Israeli youngsters have bucked all of the odds and have become the darling of the competition. Together with its head coach leading the way, Israel has been molded into Haim’s infectious image which will hopefully spur it on to make what was once seen as improbable, into a joyous reality.