Once again, Israel’s soccer program underwhelming

Sinai Says: Trying to find an explanation for the way Israel’s under-19 national team choked versus Lithuania leaves one with more questions than answers.

Gidi Kanuk 311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Gidi Kanuk 311
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Could it be the water that they drink? Or maybe it has something to do with the curse that seems to accompany any soccer player wearing the Israel jersey? Trying to find an explanation for the way Israel’s under-19 national team choked in such a spectacular manner on Sunday leaves one with more questions than answers.
The target seemed quite simple.
After defeating its Czech counterpart and losing to Serbia, Israel needed a win over Lithuania to secure a top two finish and advance from Group 5 of the European Under-19 Championship’s first qualifying stage.
A victory would have merely seen Israel progress to the elite round of qualifying in which seven more mini-tournaments will be played, with the group winners to join the hosts in the annual finals in Estonia next summer.
But even with so little on the line, the future of Israeli soccer crumbled under the pressure.
Lithuania was considered to be the weakest team in the group, picking up just a single point while failing to score a goal in its first two qualifiers.
Israel also had the advantage of hosting the six-day qualifying tournament.
However, Israel’s youngsters frustratingly displayed the inadequacies we are so used to seeing from the country’s senior teams over the years, first and foremost failing to cope mentally with the task on hand.
Israel fell behind to Lithuania in first half stoppage time in Herzliya, with Deividas Kapustas finding the back of the net.
But there was renewed hope for the hosts after Haytham Halabi leveled the score in the 60th minute and the few fans on hand already began celebrating Israel’s progress when Shahar Hirsh scored with three minutes remaining.
However, the party was short lived, with Israel capitulating like so many times before, allowing Martynas Jefisovas to equalize in the 90th minute.
Israel’s heartbroken players sunk to the ground in despair as the final whistle was sounded, while coach Eli Ohana desperately looked for the bright spot of the dejecting 2-2 draw.
“We did everything right in the second half so this is very frustrating,” said Ohana, who failed to guide the under-19 team past the first qualifying round in two of three previous campaigns.
“Nevertheless, I’m proud of the players. We now need to rebuild the team because these players have played for the under-19 side for the last time. I hope that in the future we get a slightly easier draw.”
It is hardly surprising Ohana failed to get the team to perform when it mattered most when you consider that he didn’t even know that the draw didn’t end Israel’s hopes of reaching the elite round.
Apparently, Ohana is not only a careless coach, but he also pays little attention to the competition’s regulations.
Had he done so he would have known that Israel still has a chance of advancing as the third-placed team with the best record against the top pair in its group.
As things currently stand, Israel is the best third-placed side, and as long as results don’t conspire against it in unlikely fashion on Wednesday, it will continue to the next round.
The only way Israel can be overtaken is if Luxembourg stuns Georgia and Poland beats Turkey in the final matches of Group 9.
But even should the team progress as expected, Sunday’s performance should come as a wake-up call for Israeli soccer.
It is one thing to occasionally fail, but when you repeat your mistakes over and over there is no excuse.
As disappointing as Ohana’s tenure as the under-19 coach has been since he took charge in 2008, should he really shoulder all the blame? If the Israel Football Association refuses to hire a sports psychologist on a full-time basis for its senior team, how can you expect Ohana’s teenagers to understand the importance of the mental side of the game? The IFA employed a sports psychologist for the 1970 World Cup, but it has since inexplicably neglected what is regarded as a crucial part to any success in modern sports.
Considering the recent history of Israeli soccer, the IFA needs to set up an entire department of psychologists to accompany each of the national teams.
Israel has enough talented players to record the occasional triumph, but it will not do so as long as it ignores its biggest weakness.
It is about time the IFA focuses on what is important rather than passing the buck.
Or perhaps the IFA would rather we believe it is tainted water or some mystical force that time and again results in Israel’s national teams collapsing in the moment of truth.
[email protected]
Follow Allon Sinai on Twitter: @AllonSinai