The Last Word: Let's hear it for our boys

The massive coverage of Israel's participation in the UEFA Under-21 European Championship in The Netherlands is reminiscent of the World Cup.

israeli soccer 88 (photo credit: )
israeli soccer 88
(photo credit: )
Looking at the massive coverage of Israel's participation in the UEFA Under-21 European Championship currently taking place in The Netherlands you'd be forgiven for thinking this was the World Cup. Before the young Israelis qualified, few people knew much about the tournament. It isn't exactly a major competition but more of a feeding ground for young talent. But for Israel, qualification is seen a massive achievement and is being treated so, in stark contrast to most European countries, notably England, where the tournament is getting little press coverage, reflecting the lack of public interest. In the sports sections of the English newspapers on Monday afternoon, it was the latest transfer rumors that topped the agenda rather than news about England's Group B clash with the Czech Republic in Arnhem. With half an hour to go before the game the revelation that Hull City had appointed a new chairman featured higher up on the soccer section of the BBC's web site than anything about the Under-21s. In England, the Under-21s are perceived as nothing more than a youth team. If a player is any good, the feeling is, he would be playing for the senior team. In fact, the only big story about the tournament covered by the English press was that Blackburn's David Bentley pulled out of the competition, as he thought it would make him tired for next season and hamper his chances of breaking into the senior team in time for Euro 2008 qualifiers in September and October (including the crucial match against Israel on September 8). How refreshing it has been to see how seriously the Israelis have treated their participation in this tournament. It may only be seen as a youth event by most of Europe but it is the first time Israel has competed on the world stage since the Olympics in 1976. While England's players, many of whom are already earning millions at top Premiership clubs, appear blas about the whole thing, the Israelis have been looking towards the possibility of qualifying for next year's Olympics in Beijing by finishing in one of the top two positions in their group. While a large number of the players in the tournament see it as a chance to put their talent on show and attract the attention of a top European club, the Israelis appear to be focusing much more on the team. There has been an obvious camaraderie and professional attitude in the Israeli camp at the same time as they have been enjoying the whole experience. The squad made a great impression from the start when they left Ben Gurion airport dressed in smart blue suits with light blue ties. The only problem is the level of the soccer itself. As much as the Israeli players have been focused and united, the fact is that they are not on par with most of their opponents. That was shown clearly on Sunday night when Holland outpassed, outattacked and generally outclassed the boys in blue and white. Unfortunately, the remaining games are likely to end the same way. Even though the talented youngsters like Barak Itzhaki, Amit Ben-Shushan and Yuval Shprungin are good, they're not that good. As well as a step up in class, one other thing they lack is top class coaching and facilities, something the players who play in England Holland, Portugal and other European countries take for granted. However, despite the losses on the field of play, these youngsters will enjoy the experience, learn as much as they can from it, and come back better soccer players to the benefit of themselves and their clubs - something David Bentley should be thinking about as he sits at home in Blackburn.