Excuses, lowered expectations all that’s left

No real way to put positive spin on Israel’s pathetic display over first two WCup qualifiers.

Russian team beat Israeli team in Ramat Gan 370 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Russian team beat Israeli team in Ramat Gan 370
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
The most poignant moment in Israel’s 4-0 humbling at the hands of Russia on Tuesday night arrived in the 50th minute of the 2014 World Cup qualifier.
The second half at National Stadium in Ramat Gan was well underway, but with Israel already trailing 2-0, and just as importantly, looking completely helpless, the 30,000 fans on hand turned their attention away from the pitch to give a standing ovation to an athlete truly worthy of every praise.
As if there wasn’t even a match going on, the entire stadium rose to applaud Paralympic gold medalist Noam Gershony when his presence was announced.
So desperately depressing had been the national team’s performance that even the blue-and- white faithful, who inexplicably still attend Israel’s matches en masse, had lost all interest and hope with still almost half of the game to be played.
Some Israel players had the audacity to criticize the supporters for not coming out to back the team in recent days, failing to comprehend that it is their lackluster and slapdash displays over the last few years that have alienated local fans to an extent that they avoid the national team’s matches even when handed a free ticket.
Even though his team looked totally lost throughout its four friendly matches since he took charge at the beginning of the year, coach Eli Gutman continuously built up the expectations of fans, insisting Israel could reach the World Cup in Brazil.
It didn’t take long to discover that Gutman’s words were no more than wishful thinking, with the team continuing its disastrous play in its first two qualifiers.
“I can only apologize for the team’s performance against Russia,” a shocked Gutman said after Tuesday’s humiliation. “I have been through enough in soccer that had I thought I was incapable of guiding the team I would have said it right here.
“We have hit rock bottom and we need to rise from here.”
Gutman is a coach known for his methodical approach and tactical preparation, but he lost his head over the last week.
He made five changes to the starting lineup against Russia from Friday’s 1-1 draw against Azerbaijan, using 19 different players during both encounters.
Gutman essentially tried everything he could think of as you would expect from someone who had no clue of what really needs to be done.
But Gutman should not shoulder all of the blame, or even most of it.
It is the players who fail the nation, fans and themselves time and again, playing with a carelessness that used to frustrate, but has long reached the level that it simply infuriates.
“Our goal is now to end the group in third position, which is our true place,” said captain Yossi Benayoun, just a week after he hyped up the team’s chances of qualifying for Brazil.
“It is impossible to qualify for the World Cup when you lose a home game like this.
“We entered the match believing we could do it, but at the end of the day you have to perform on the pitch to win and that didn’t happen.”
With disillusionment the dominant emotion in the aftermath of the Russia debacle, it would be foolish to set the national team any tangible targets.
The only goal at the moment should be to renew the hope in the heart of those supporters who still care.
Those fans that, despite everything, still showed up at Ramat Gan on Tuesday night and in their desperation were left to salute a true sporting hero sitting in the stands while the team they came to see embarrassingly capitulated on the pitch.