Israel will play in its first FIFA World Cup tournament since 1970, as the Under-20 squad will step onto the pitch on Sunday for its debut matchup in the 24-team tournament that is taking place in Argentina.
The blue-and-white bucked all of the odds by qualifying for the competition last year as part of the 2022 UEFA Under-19 European Championship after downing France 2-1 in the semifinals to punch its ticket to the promised land.Head coach Ofir Haim will have his hands full in Group C with the likes of Japan, Colombia and Senegal as Israel is one of two participants who will be making their debut in the competition, with the Dominican Republic being the other in the 24-team, six-group tournament.
Who will be on the team?
Israel will feature a number of up-and-coming stars, but will be without Oscar Gloukh who was not released by his club team, Red Bull Salzburg. It is expected that he will be available for Euro 2024 qualifiers along with the Under-21 European Championship that will be played later in June in Georgia.
However, Haim still has a strong squad that will look to make waves in Argentina after the tournament was moved at the 90th minute from Indonesia after its government’s refusal to allow the Israeli team into the country due to not having diplomatic ties.
Hapoel Tel Aviv will have its fingerprints all over the U20 roster, with six players - from midfielder El Yam Kancepolsky to defender Stav Lemkin along with forward Omer Senior. Maccabi Tel Aviv striker Dor Turgeman will also be in the squad as well as Maccabi Petach Tikva Ariel Lugassy and Tay Aed, who plies his trade at PSV Eindhoven.
Kancepolsky looked ahead as to what makes the squad unique.
“We are a national team with a lot of talent but that is the case across Europe. However, what brings us together is the fact that we are a team that trusts one another every single game. We know where we are heading and we will be there for each other. We know that it’s not just talent that will help us succeed.”
Another player to keep an eye on is Ilay Madmon, who captained the Under-19 squad at last year’s European Championships. The on-loan Beitar Jerusalem midfielder - who is strong and composed and has impressive tactical awareness - was named to the team of the tournament at the Euros and will look to make his impact felt in Argentina.“The national team is greater than one individual player,” Madmon said. “At the Euros, it was amazing to see all of our families and you can feel it all. We hope that will be the same in Argentina. This past season many of us played in front of huge crowds which will be helpful as we are a team of winners and are mentally strong. The noise and pressure will give us a positive push forward.”
Haim has plenty of weapons at his disposal, but ultimately Israel will be playing against the world’s cream of the crop, with the likes of Brazil, Argentina, England and Italy all featuring in the tournament.
Haim uses a 4-2-3-1 formation and likes to see his squad dominate possession and attack with speed and purpose. The bench boss was one of Israel’s great goal scorers and led the league back in 2003/04 in markers while at Hapoel Beersheba.
“Our goal is to continue to develop players,” Haim began. “While Oscar Gloukh won’t be with us because he took the next step, there will be other players who will have the opportunity to shine. This was a tough goal to reach the World Cup and our opponents are of the highest level. But we are the Israel National Team and we are going to do something very special. We truly believe that with all our hearts. Our goal is to reach the Round of 16.”Colombia will be a tough challenge under head coach Hector Cardenas, who employs a 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 depending on what the match will entail. Cardenas was promoted by the country’s federation after guiding the Under-17 team and qualified by finishing second in their six-team group right behind Brazil.
Nineteen-year old Oscar Cortes will be the one to watch for Colombia as the attacking midfielder from Millonarios FC plays in Colombia’s Primera A. He has an endless repertoire of skills and is creative in the middle of the pitch being able to score and assist by using his pace, strong shot and one-on-one acumen. The World Cup may be an opportunity for Cortes to make the jump to Europe with quality performances.
Japan’s head coach Koichi Togashi has been able to guide a number of the country’s youth teams to solid results in various tournaments both in Europe and in the qualification competition in Asia.
Defensive midfielder Kuryu Matsuki made waves in his country when he debuted for J League side FC Tokyo back in 2021, and he was able to hone his skills while facing the top-level competition in his country.
Matsuki’s huge potential makes him an important piece to the country’s puzzle while also being able to score the occasional goal as he did in qualifying against Saudi Arabia. His mental strength and ability to be there for his team at the most crucial moments of the game have drawn comparisons to legendary Japanese footballer Keisuke Honda, and he will be the captain of the side.
Malick Daf is the Senegal head coach and helped guide the Under-20 squad to the World Cup after being handed the reins in 2021. Daf is a forward-thinking bench boss and is usually ahead of the curve when it comes to tactics, technique and managing his roster. He likes to play a 4-5-1 system with short passes while pushing ahead. Winger Samba Diallo is dangerous and can leave many a defender in the dust by flying down the flanks. Diallo, who captains the squad, plays for Dynamo Kiev and can use his long shot to surprise his opponents, while also looking like another Senegalese great in Sadio Mane.
Prior to the start of the tournament, the Israeli delegation met with close to 100 individuals from the Jewish communities in Argentina in Buenos Aires. Eyal Sela, the Israeli Ambassador, along with Israel Football Association Youth Department Technical Director Boni Ginzburg, were in attendance for an emotional and moving event.
Israel will open the competition against Colombia on Sunday night in La Plata and will then play Senegal on Wednesday in the same stadium. The blue-and-white will finish off group play the following Sunday versus Japan in Mendoza.