Israel kicks off critical continental campaign

Ruttensteiner begins tenure on blue-and-white sidelines with Nations League duels vs Scotland, Slovakia

ERAN ZAHAVI practices ahead of Israel’s Nations League matches against Scotland and Slovakia, in which Willi Ruttensteiner (inset) will make his debut as the blue-and-white National Team head coach (photo credit: ISRAEL FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION)
ERAN ZAHAVI practices ahead of Israel’s Nations League matches against Scotland and Slovakia, in which Willi Ruttensteiner (inset) will make his debut as the blue-and-white National Team head coach
(photo credit: ISRAEL FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION)
The Israel National Team is preparing for a pair of UEFA Nations League clashes over the next few days as the blue-and-white visit Scotland on Friday evening and then will host Slovakia on Monday at the Netanya Stadium.
As Israel begins the latest campaign, there will be a new face on the sidelines as the Israel Football Association Sports Director Willi Ruttensteiner will now also be the squad’s head coach for at least until the end of the calendar year. The Austrian replaced Andi Herzog, whose record with the team had mixed results during the two years he was in charge.
Over the next few months, Israel will play six Nations League matches plus an additional clash with Scotland in the 2020 European Championship Playoffs. The upcoming games will serve as not only a platform to potentially qualify for the 2022 World Cup through the Nations League in addition to the standard qualifying tournament, but the contest will also serve as a dress rehearsal for the crucial Euro Championship semifinal back at Hampden Park in Glasgow on October 8.
Should Israel be victorious, it will be just one win away from punching its ticket to the Euros next summer with a winner-take-all matchup against Serbia or Norway on November 12.
Just before the blue-and-white heads into these critical tests, Ruttensteiner addressed a number of issues including the importance of Israelis playing abroad, navigating the coronavirus pandemic as well as his decision on which players he called up.
Israel Football Association Sports Director Willi Ruttensteiner (Credit: Israel Football Association/Courtesy)Israel Football Association Sports Director Willi Ruttensteiner (Credit: Israel Football Association/Courtesy)
The star of the national team, Eran Zahavi, was able to gain his release from Guangzhou R&F in order to join the squad. After spending four seasons in China, Zahavi will now be looking for a new club home with both his former Israeli team Maccabi Tel Aviv and Fenerbahçe in Turkey being rumored.
Ruttensteiner praised his star scorer and spoke about his importance to the national team.
“Eran Zahavi has an amazing attitude for the Israeli national team and he’s a model to come back and try to qualify for the final round. We will see about his club situation because if he doesn’t have any games until the end of the year it will be a problem.”
One of the surprise call-ups was Joel Abu Hanna, who is joining the national team for the first time. The 22-year old currently plays for Zorya Luhansk in Ukraine, was born in Germany to an Israeli-Arab father and German mother and has featured for his birth country’s youth national teams. However, at 1.84 meters, the center back is a commodity that Israel needs – Ruttensteiner called him a “very interesting player” – and is therefore in camp with the blue-and-white.
Lior Refaelov, who plays his club football with Antwerp in Belgium, was a player that Ruttensteiner left out of the squad and the coach explained why he made the decision not to call in the 34-year-old veteran.
“Refaelov is a great player and great personality,” noted Ruttensteiner. “He’s not a player to be the third or fourth choice, but higher than that. I have some players already and I will not keep him on a waiting list due to all that he has done for the Israel National Team, it’s not fair to him.”
A serious issue that has come up this international window is the fact that leagues around the world do not have to release players for their countries’ upcoming games due to the coronavirus regulations, and that was the case in China with Dia Saba and with Gadi Kinda in the United States, who were not able to leave their teams due to the strict quarantine rules.
Ruttensteiner explained that this has raised some serious concerns.
“It’s very problematic because if you have more players in other countries that can’t release them, then you will lose players for the competitions. FIFA tried to find a solution and allowed countries with five-day quarantine to release players, but it’s tough to deal with the associations on this matter.”
The 57-year old Austrian also referenced his situation as head coach with the team and how long he will be in the role for.
“It’s a clear decision by the Israel Football Association and my post is until the end of the year, which is eight games, and then the association will analyze the situation. At that point we will see how we will go forward into the next year due to budget and the coronavirus.”
Finally, the head coach spoke about how critical it is for the Israeli teams in European competition to be successful for the national team program.
“I want to congratulate Maccabi Tel Aviv and wish the other teams in Europa League competition the very best. Their success is very important for the national teams and Israeli football.”