The Last Word: Postmortem report on Israel's World Cup hopes

Israel will never be a world-beating side, but it has the potential to win crucial games and qualifiers.

jeremy last 88 (photo credit: )
jeremy last 88
(photo credit: )
Unfortunately, it was left to the satirists among the Israeli sports commentators to sum up the dismal situation the Israeli national team found itself late Wednesday night. Just over thirty minutes after the final whistle had blown on Israel's disastrous 2-1 defeat to Greece in Crete, Sport5's Amichai Spiegler opened the Sports Club weekly show by throwing various Portuguese phrases at bewildered co-host Yonatan Cohen. When Cohen asked Spiegler what he was doing, Spiegler looked at him seriously and replied that he was beginning his preparations for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil. The pundit had hit the nail right on the head. Maybe Spiegler's soccer smarts were groomed as a youngster, being the son of Israel's all-time leading international goal-scorer, Mordechai Spiegler, who is also the only countryman to ever score in a World Cup finals. More likely, however, Spiegler Junior just saw what the rest of us did on Wednesday night. This campaign is effectively over - it would take a miracle for Israel to make it to next summer's World Cup finals in South Africa. Those in charge of the national team must now take a step back and determine how to set things in motion to ensure the country's soccer program can move forward from the current predicament. There was rightly much optimism when the campaign kicked off against Switzerland at Ramat Gan against Switzerland just six months ago, on September 6 last year. Many analysts, this columnist included, were sure that this was Israel's best opportunity in 40 years to qualify for a major senior tournament. Even now, with four of the ten games still to play, there is still a theoretical chance the national team could finish in the top two and even get into a playoff. Is it really already time for a postmortem? Well, it would be foolish to ignore the facts: a home draw with the Swiss and an away tie at Latvia put Dror Kashtan's team in a situation where it needed to beat Greece at least once to have any chance of coming top. After failing to do so, Israel is now relying on one of Greece, Latvia and Switzerland to fail abysmally, and even then, its hopes are no more than a pipe-dream. The blame must be laid from two angles - both at the a micro level and also from a wider, macro, perspective. First and foremost, the man to point the finger at is the man in charge of team affairs on the ground. Time and again, Kashtan made poor decisions in picking his squad, preparing the players and then choosing the lineup to play. To think, as Kashtan did, that Itai Shechter, Barak Itzhaki or Biram Kiyal are of a high enough standard to make an impact against players with a wealth of experience and strength such as Traianos Dellas, Georgios Samaras or Geoegios Karagounis was wishful thinking. Not even putting Betar Jerusalem's Aviram Bruchian and Amit Ben-Shushan on the bench, despite having watched them play in dozens of Israeli league games in recent years, was a deep error. Kashtan failed in many ways, but most significantly, in the lack of motivation and inspiration he instilled in his team. The players talked a good talk, but when they entered the field of play, they were unable to stand up to their opponents, both physically and mentally. This curtails into to the second area of concern that must be addressed. Israeli soccer is at a low level because the infrastructure it has created does not encourage true professionalism - neither in training, preparation for games, nor in the matches themselves. Israel Football Association chairman Avi Luzon being appointed last week as a member of the exclusive 15-member UEFA executive committee is only a testament to his schmoozing ability, not his soccer acumen, as it is clear from his numerous errors locally that he is not even capable of running the IFA, in his own backyard. Israel will never be a world-beating side, but, like many smaller nations, it has the potential to become a tough team to beat and one which wins crucial games and qualifiers for major tournaments. Countries like Ireland, Croatia and even Greece managed to improve their direction by changing the situation at home, both in terms of the team management and the overall directing, in order to make that step up. A new chairman must be installed, one who understands the game and has a vision of raising the bar. He must replace Kashtan with a coach who understands the shortcomings of the pool of players available, but has the ability to use their skills and advantages in the correct manner in order to get positive results. The 2014 World Cup feels very far away right now. But this is the time to start getting things moving in the right direction. If the correct steps are taken, maybe one day Israel's soccer team can bring real joy to the nation in place of the current disappointment.