Less than a month ago, Israel looked to be teetering on the brink of a crisis. Coach Luis Fernandez was clinging to his job in the face of growing criticism and his dismissal could have proved the tipping point for a team low on confidence. Rather than bow to public pressure, however, the Israel Football Association (IFA) opted to back their man. It has since proved to be a shrewd decision.
A place at UEFA EURO 2012 had begun to resemble an unattainable dream after defeats by qualifying Group F rivals Croatia and Greece, but since then Israel have made up vital ground in the race for a finals berth. A 2-1 win against Latvia and a 1-0 victory over Georgia three days later propelled them up to third spot in their section, while sending them soaring to 33rd in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
“It’s not easy to win two home games in such a short space of time, but we managed to do it,” said Fernandez, the former French international midfielder. Elyaniv Barda echoed his coach’s sentiments, stressing that Israel were under serious pressure too. “We had no choice but to win,” the Genk striker told FIFA.com. “We knew it would be difficult against Latvia, because they beat us at home in our last qualifying campaign. But we were ready for these crucial matches.”
Reasons for optimism
Those successive triumphs have breathed new life into the Blue and Whites, rekindling their dream of reaching Poland and Ukraine and simultaneously lifting their global standing. True, the side still have a long way to go to match their highest ever placing of 15th in November 2008, but reasons abound to believe they can continue climbing.
To begin with, Barda and Co could make up significant ground in their next few outings, with their June trip to Latvia followed by a home meeting with Greece and an away mission in Croatia – the latter two nations having recently graced the top ten. “We’re just third in the group for the moment,” Barda said. “We have to do our job to at least keep our destiny in our own hands. That means we have to get a result in Latvia and a win against Greece.”
He spoke a lot, especially to the younger players. He gave them confidence... He’s prepared to make sacrifices for the national side.
Israeli supporters can also take heart from the return of captain and star player Yossi Benayoun, who has recently recovered from long-term injury. “He was with us before the match against Latvia, in particular during the training sessions,” said Barda, who notched Israel’s opening goal against the Baltic side.
“He spoke a lot, especially to the younger players. He gave them confidence. After that, he played in the second match and you have to respect that. Not many players would make their first match back after six months out one with the national team, especially in such difficult circumstances where victory was essential. He’s prepared to make sacrifices for the national side.”
Win or go home
Benayoun’s presence against Georgia proved inspirational to the more junior members of Fernandez’s squad, most notably Tal Ben Haim, who made the biggest impression after coming on to win his first cap. Called up at the last minute as a replacement for Eran Zahavi, the 21-year-old striker took just seven minutes to post the only goal of the game.
“The coach couldn’t have prepared us better for those two matches, either mentally, physically or tactically, in terms of changing the system,” added Barda. “He rotated the line-up because the two games were so close together, and everything worked out.”
Just as well too, as a few days previous to the crucial double-header, the newspaper Israel Hayom warned: “If he doesn’t bring victory, he should go home and see the Arc de Triomphe.” A few weeks on and it is Israel who are edging closer to triumph.