The Last Word: A truly bitter pill to swallow

The Last Word A truly b

If ever there was a missed opportunity for Israeli sports, the failure to make it to next year's World Cup in South Africa was it. As the years go on, and Israel continues to find itself on the fringe of the international arena, we will look back on the 2010 campaign again and again, imagining what might, and should, have been. It wasn't just that the national team was drawn into the easiest group since it first began competing in European qualifying in 1992. But the way that Switzerland and Greece dropped points to Luxembourg and Moldova, respectively, over the last year makes Israel's collapse even harder to take. We knew that Israel's two main rivals for a 2010 World Cup spot weren't particularly good, especially after the 2008 European Championships when the Swiss lost their first two games and only beat Portugal in the meaningless final game in Group A, while the Greeks crashed to defeats in all three of their Group D matches. But when Switzerland lost at home against Luxembourg on September 10 three days after holding Israel to a 2-2 draw in Ramat Gan, it opened a window of opportunity which Dror Kashtan and his players must be embarrassed not to have exploited. There is an assumption that teams have to win their home games against the best teams in the group to be sure of success in World Cup qualifying. But Luxembourg's victory in Zurich, and Valeriu Andronic's last minute equalizer for Moldova against Greece last month, meant that it didn't matter that Israel only drew at home to the Greeks and Swiss. All Israel had to do was get the better of Latvia, a team ranked 36 places below it in the FIFA rankings, and it failed to do so. The campaign turned in the Latvian capital of Riga on October 15 last year. Israel was leading 1-0 through a Yossi Benayoun goal, and seemingly cruising to an away victory, when Vladimirs Kolesnicenko stepped up and capitalized on a typical Israeli lapse of concentration to equalize. But it didn't end there. If Israel had not played so atrociously against the Latvians and lost 1-0 in Ramat Gan last month, there would have been a real chance. Instead, the inevitable capitulation came, leaving Israel with only the slightest of possibilities of qualifying. The most frustrating thing about the entire campaign was that Israel actually played relatively well in the 0-0 draw with Switzerland in Basel on Wednesday night, even though Kashtan's disappointingly defensive tactics made it extremely difficult to see where a goal would come from. For the first time in years, Tal Ben-Haim looked like a world-class defender while Tamir Cohen finally began to show why Bolton Wanderers' manager Gary Megson has made him a first choice midfielder in the English Premier League. Unfortunately it was all in vain, as Israel needed to win and dream of Luxembourg holding Greece in Athens. While watching the Israel match, I continuously flipped channels to see how Luxembourg was doing. At first it looked hopeful, but then Greece scored two goals in two minutes and it was all over. When the game in Switzerland ended I couldn't bare to listen to Kashtan's famous drivel - knowing he would talk about how he was proud of the way his boys played against the Swiss - so I turned over. With a few minutes still left in the other game, Greek defender Avraam Papadopoulos turned the ball into his own net, but although Guy Hellers's team went full out for the equalizer in the last few minutes, it didn't materialize. Another goal would have forced the Israelis to kick themselves even harder. The next few months will be a time of change at the IFA. A new coach will be recruited, and hopes will be raised once again when the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign begins. But after failing so miserably this time around, why should we ever believe that Israel has what is takes to grace the global stage?