Israel kicks off Nations League in Albania

Tough road test in Herzog’s 1st encounter as national team coach • Zahavi to make blue-and-white return.

Soccer ball (illustrative) (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Soccer ball (illustrative)
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
On Friday evening, Israel’s national soccer team takes its first steps under new head coach Andreas Herzog and technical director Willi Ruttensteiner with a visit to Albania in the first match for both sides in the brandnew UEFA Nations League competition.
Albania triumphed 3-0 in Haifa in June 2017, while Israel won 3-0 in Elbasan in November 2016 in the countries’ most recent meetings.
The Nations League stems from the desire of UEFA and its 55 member associations to improve the quality and standing of national team soccer, with the increasing belief that friendly matches are not providing adequate competition.
The format of the competition features promotion and relegation. The 55 European national teams have been divided into four leagues in accordance with UEFA’s national association coefficient rankings on 11 October 2017.
League A includes the top-ranked sides and League D includes the lowest.
Israel is in Group C1, together with Scotland and Albania, with four total groups in League C.
The four group winners are promoted to League B, with the four sides that finish bottom relegated to League D for the 2020 edition. The top four ranked teams that do not qualify for UEFA Euro 2020 will enter a play-off in March 2020, with one finals place on offer.
The Austrian duo was brought to Israel over the summer to begin resurrecting the remains of the blue-and-white after a number of poor campaigns, a drop in the FIFA rankings and plenty of controversy.
Ruttensteiner was well aware of the challenges that lay ahead when he was appointed, and not only was he tasked with finding a new head coach, he also had to find a way to bring back Eran Zahavi, arguably the nation’s best player, into the fold and begin to create a new atmosphere surrounding the program.
So far the 55-year-old has done an admirable job in beginning the turnover, but patience is a virtue that Israel fans will need to have in order to see concrete results across the entire Israel Football Association.
The first step was to find a coach that had national team experience in order to implement Ruttensteiner’s plans and Herzog, 49, was a fine choice considering his time spent as an assistant under former American boss Jurgen Klinsmann.
“I know Herzog very well as both a player and coach of the Austrian and USA’s youth coach and as Jurgen Klinsmann’s assistant with the United States national team. Herzog has a lot of passion in leading the Israel national team in the near future and I’m convinced that he will contribute a lot.”
Herzog was also a star player for club and country, even scoring an unforgettable goal for Austria at Ramat Gan Stadium in 2001 that kept Israel from reaching the 2002 World Cup.
“He was a great player for Werder Bremen and had terrific experience as player,” Ruttensteiner continued. “I think he has gone about his coaching career correctly. A former player has to learn and educate himself as a professional coach and he did it.”
Herzog was thrilled to have the chance to coach Israel and relishes the opportunity.
“I am happy to be here and excited to be named the new Israel national team head coach. We will have some hard challenges but I truly believe in the soccer in Israel and my players. I believe in my abilities to achieve significant progress to the football here in Israel. As the coach of a national team you have to be the biggest fan of your own players. I hope that we will get big support from our fans in the country.”
The new boss also talked about what he wants to instill into the team.
“I hate to lose and I want my players to feel the same way. I want to get this mentality as quick as possible in my team. I know it’s not easy, but overall if we want to compete at the highest level I think that it’s really important to bring a winner mentality.”
Once having the head coach installed, Ruttensteiner began analyzing the potential national team players together with Herzog. Some choices were obvious as youngsters were brought in to inject new life into the squad. Of course, the red herring was Eran Zahavi and having the star scorer return after retiring following his tossing of the captain’s armband to the ground in frustration last year.
Zahavi’s recruitment began with a happy birthday call by Ruttensteiner and ended with an apology by the Guangzhou based strike.
“I have no ego and I want to apologize for what happened,” said Zahavi. “I hope that my future with the national team will be much better. I retired after throwing the armband and it was a crazy 24 hours, but it was also the right time for me to move aside. At the end of the day it was good for both me and the team.”
Herzog praised his return and spoke about his expectations.
“Zahavi can be a difference maker. I don’t want him to show that he’s the guy that everyone is waiting for. I just want him to try the best for the national team with his quality. I just want him to show the supporters that he is back and wants to do his best.”
Just before heading off to Albania, it was clear a new and positive atmosphere began permeating throughout the team.
Forward Alon Turgeman said, “We have an experienced squad and a staff that is bringing new energy and new things.”
“There’s a new feeling in the air and the new staff which was brought in has plenty of experience at the National Team level,” echoed midfielder Dan Glazer.
The secret to success however will be the groundwork laid by Ruttensteiner.
“We have to create a new team spirit. A spirit with enthusiasm with the will to win. We must have self confidence in the Nations League. The team must be the star and not the individual player.”
The first test begins on Friday.
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 Contact the Sports Rabbi via email at [email protected]