Blue-and-white licking wounds after dejecting Albania loss
By ALLON SINAI
to Albania in Haifa on Sunday not only saw the national team fall to fourth place in 2018 World Cup qualifying Group G, but also once more exposed the sense of disenchantment many local fans feel towards the blueand- white.The resounding boos at halftime and the final whistle and the fact the stadium was only half-full to start all showed how far the national team has fallen.With Group G also including powerhouses Spain and Italy, Israel never had any real chance of qualifying for the World Cup in Russia. It could have, however, taken a significant step towards a third-place finish with a victory on Sunday. But instead of moving six points clear of Albania with four matches to play, it dropped behind its rival on goal difference, raising serious questions regarding the direction in which the team is heading under coach Elisha Levy.Booing the national team players off the pitch is nothing new in Israel games, but for a player to be heckled every time he touches the ball is all but unprecedented.After coming on as a substitute in the 67th minute to make a record 99th appearance for Israel, Yossi Benayoun’s every involvement was received with boos by local Maccabi Haifa supporters still disgruntled with his departure for Maccabi Tel Aviv last summer.“I’m embarrassed for those who booed me,” said Benayoun.“I’m not surprised by anything in Israeli soccer. I saw it coming. Everyone knows who whose fans are. They should go home and look themselves in the mirror.”Midfielder Bibras Natcho said the side’s performance was affected by what was going on in the stands.“We were really hurt by the fans that booed Benayoun,” he said. “Yossi is the greatest Israeli soccer player of all time and if people don’t know how to respect him something must be flawed in our culture.“I don’t think those fans deserve a player like Benayoun.It was disgraceful. All the players heard it,” added Natcho before also addressing the team’s dismal performance.“We are all extremely disappointed.We should have at least made sure we lost 2-0 so that we would own the head-tohead tiebreaker. This was a very painful defeat.”Sunday’s loss marked the start of the second half of Israel’s qualifying campaign. The blueand- white next hosts Macedonia in Haifa on September 2 before visiting Italy without any expectations three days later.Israel will complete its campaign in October, going to Liechtenstein on October 6 three days before it hosts Spain at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem in its final qualifier.
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