The Last Word: The Israel coaching conundrum can be solved

If a foreigner is ruled out of the running, Itzhak Schum is the only real option.

jeremy last 88 (photo credit: )
jeremy last 88
(photo credit: )
In the crazy world that is FIFA 2010 World Cup European qualifying Group 2, it is nothing short of amazing that Israel somehow still has a chance, albeit slim, of making it to its first major tournament since 1970. The mind-boggling Group 2 results, which began in the second round of matches when Luxembourg beat Switzerland 2-1 in Zurich (yes that's the same Luxembourg which lost 7-0 here on Wednesday), continued this week with Moldova's last-minute-equalizer against Greece and Latvia's 2-2 tie with Switzerland in Riga. Therefore, if Latvia and Greece draw when they play each other in October and Israel beats Moldova, Israel can finish second on goal difference by winning in Switzerland in the final game and advance to a playoff for a place in the finals. However, unless Israel actually goes and wins in Basel on October 14 it will be impossible to brand Dror Kashtan's time as coach of the national team as anything but a failure. And seeing as Israel hasn't won a significant match away from home since 1993 when it beat France in the second to last game of the 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign after Israel had already been eliminated, I wouldn't advise him, or the nation, to get their hopes up. The home loss to Latvia on Saturday night was one of the most disappointing evenings in the history of Israeli soccer. The game was there for the taking and the players threw it away, along with their World Cup dream. Too often analysts will blame the players themselves for a national team's failure to qualify for a tournament. But, as we have seen with the transformation the England team has undergone in the year and eight months since Fabio Capello took over, a good coach can get the best out of a group of talented players with the right approach. Under Steve McClaren England was in disarray, playing low-quality-soccer, losing twice to Croatia, and missing out on Euro 2008. Capello has taken the same players and turned them into world beaters, qualifying for South Africa with two games to spare by winning all eight of its qualifiers so far, including two routs of the very Croatia team which embarrassed it in 2007. The skepticism among England fans over the Italian's appointment in December 2007 has been replaced by blind optimism that their team can end "44 years of hurt" and win the World Cup for the first time since 1966. This optimism is well placed, and correctly based on admiration for Capello's techniques. So how did the man from San Canzian d'Isonzo turn things around so quickly and can this be applied to the Israel team? The answer is: simply, and yes. Capello did two things, he installed discipline and confidence. These are the two elements which were crucially missing from McClaren's England squad and have been lacking in Kashtan's Israel squad. The England players quickly adapted to the Italian's attitude, respecting his decisions and acting on his orders. They soon began playing as a formidable unit and developed a solid belief in their abilities. Gone were the doubts over whether Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard could play together. No more did people concern themselves over the lack of a left sided midfielder. England believed they were better than their opposition and played in a manner which portrayed this. The problem Israel Football Association chairman Avi Luzon has is to find a coach who can instill belief and discipline into the Israeli players. The positive aspect of all this is that there is no need to give up. It is clearly possible to find such a man, and with the right coach Israel has every chance of making it to a major tournament, even the next Euro in Poland and Ukraine, no matter what teams the blue and white are drawn to play against in the qualifiers. Considering the current crop of Israeli candidates, it is not surprising that, according to a number of polls published this week, Eyal Berkovic is the fans' choice. The former West Ham and Celtic player may not have any top-level coaching experience, but the fans believe that all is lost anyway so at least Berkovic would bring some excitement instead of the bore that Kashtan became. This would be a big mistake. Berkovic would be a disaster similar to Diego Maradona in Argentina and Marco Van Basten in Holland. Great, fiery players do not necessarily make good coaches. All signs, therefore, initially point to bringing in an experienced foreign coach. There are many out there who may not charge ridiculous salaries, such as former Chelsea coach Luis Felipe Scolari (currently coaching Uzbekhistan) and former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson (currently at Notts County in the English bottom division). These coaches know how to make the players play in a style they expect and won't put up with a half-hearted attitude. Unfortunately it is unlikely Luzon would go for a foreigner, and if he did that the new man would survive. Israeli soccer is very insular and foreign coaches rarely do well. The players soon start complaining they don't understand what they are being told and the media hounds the coach out of the country. Of course Israel once tried to use an outsider in Dane Richard Moller Nielson. But after he didn't manage to take the national team to the 2002 World Cup he wasn't given the chance to make amends. If a foreigner is ruled out of the running there is only one real option. Aside from Avram Grant, who already failed in his time as Israel coach between 2002 and 2006, Itzhak Schum is the Israeli with the most European experience. Schum is a disciplined coach who served as the assistant to national team coaches Shlomo Scharf and then Nielson over a ten-year period between 1992 and 2002. He then led Maccabi Haifa in the Champions League before winning the double with Panathinaikos in Greece. He may not be a friend of Luzon's, but the need for a revival of Israel's fortunes will necessitate Schum's resignation from his post at Betar Jerusalem, or at least a commitment to leave the club at the end of the season, and a return to the Israel set up as soon as possible.