Heading into Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, Israel stares down attainable yet daunting challenge.
By JOSHUA HALICKMAN
The Israel national team began its Euro 2020 qualification campaign late Thursday night against Slovenia in Haifa and will host Austria on Sunday evening at Sammy Ofer Stadium.The campaign will include 10 matches against five teams, with Macedonia, Latvia and Poland rounding out the group of six countries. The top two squads in the group will advance to the Euro, which will be played at a host of cities throughout the continent beginning mid-June 2020.After a UEFA Nations League campaign that saw Israel almost qualify for the playoffs, which would have led to a berth in the Euros, head coach Andreas Herzog is back to lead the blue-and-white for this round of qualifiers.One of the many challenges that the 50-year-old Austrian faces is managing the expectations of leading Israel to its first appearance in a major soccer tournament since the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. In fact, Israel has never advanced to the group stages of the Euros and has set its sights on doing so for the first time in its history.“I’m hoping that there will be a good atmosphere,” said Herzog. “We are looking to have a successful campaign with many fans in the stadium. We all know that we need the fans each home game to be behind is.”“The start of the campaign is always important, but even if we don’t win we have to be optimistic as we go into the second game on Sunday against Austria,” added Herzog. “It’s very important to win all of our home matches, but of course that won’t be easy.”There are a number of key players who will feature for Israel and one of them is veteran striker Tomer Hemed.Advertisement“It’s exciting to begin a new campaign,” explained Hemed. “The players are excited as is the country while everyone begins to talk about expectations and chances. I’ve set a goal to just focus on each match one at a time and not look too far into the future.“We hope that we will continue the way we played in the Nations League and prove that it wasn’t a one-off decent campaign, but one in which we were building the foundation for this current tournament.”Another important player in Herzog’s stable is Moanes Dabour, who was recently sold by Austrian outfit Red Bull Salzburg to La Liga’s Sevilla.The 26-year-old Israeli-Arab will be counted on by the blue-and-white staff as expectations for the goal-scorer have reached unprecedented levels ahead of his upcoming move to Spain.“I’m aware of the expectations and I’m coming into these games in good shape,” said Dabour. “The pressure placed upon me is positive and I’m used to that. I really want to succeed with the national team and do my utmost to contribute.”Dabour is aware that although the teams that Israel will play aren’t the most attractive opponents, but nonetheless are very good.“We’re in a difficult group, but they aren’t the top teams in the world, which gives us a chance. We’re not going to be afraid of any national team and we have to think positive. I believe that we can do some good things going forward,” he said.However, the biggest wild-card for Israel is Eran Zahavi.After starring with Maccabi Tel Aviv, Zahavi moved to China and is currently playing with Guangzhou R&F. After recently returning to the blue-and-white in the Nations League following a suspension for throwing the captain’s armband at Sammy Ofer Stadium, Zahavi knows that all eyes will be focused on him.“I’m returning to Sammy Ofer and everyone understands that I made a mistake,” noted Zahavi. “I’m going to play hard and I want to believe that everything will be ok.”Zahavi is hoping for a positive campaign.“We hope that we’ll be able to continue how we played in the Nations League because I feel that our performance was something different,” said Zahavi. “We’re about to begin a new campaign, but we don’t know where it will go. I can speak in clichés and say how much the Israel national team means to us, but we have to prove that on the pitch.”The Israeli league single-season goal-scoring record holder has struggled finding the back of the net for the national team and will have to find his scoring tough if the blue-and-white hopes to advance.“When we are with the national team we are playing against much better players,” remarked Zahavi. “At Maccabi, I played with a team that scored many goals and I was the dominant player, but that’s not the case with Israel. I have no excuse and it’s clear that I need to score more. I’m not blaming anyone, it’s my responsibility only.“The group we were drawn in is very misleading. On the one hand we aren’t playing Italy or Spain, which you know right off the bat that you have no chance to qualify. On paper the teams we did get are not as strong, but they are national teams that we can’t lose points to. We’re optimistic, but we can’t let our guard down.”Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel sports adventures for tourists and residents. Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or visit www.sportsrabbi.com. Feel free to contact the Sports Rabbi via email at firstname.lastname@example.org