Missing out on qualification for the FIFA World Cup™ is always a heart-wrenching experience, but when the difference between success and failure comes down to goal difference, the pain must be unbearable.
Just ask Israel, who were forced to watch Germany 2006 from home after suffering precisely that torment. Pitted in the same group as France, Switzerland and Ireland, the Israelis remained unbeaten at the end of the qualifiers, but ultimately missed out on the global showpiece by the agonising margin of a handful of goals.
In order to avoid similar disappointment when all is done and dusted on the road to UEFA EURO 2008 , coach Dror Kashtan has placed his faith in a new generation of forwards. Brilliant as they each took their steps in the national side, Roberto Colautti, Ben Sahar and Toto Tamuz appear to have all it takes to become heroes in their homeland. And Israel will need them to be at their very best if they are to graduate from a tough Group E containing heavyweights England, Croatia and Russia, along with relative minnows Estonia, Andorra and Macedonia.
Given his head at this level in the opening qualifier away to Estonia in October 2006, Colautti wasted no time in showing off his talent. To cap a fine performance, he even fired in the winning goal in a 1-0 success, an unforgettable debut for a player who had only been granted Israeli citizenship three days previously. "I was very excited before the match and I had tears in my eyes when I heard the national anthem," the 25-year-old revealed after the encounter. "It really was a dream start for me."
Wind back the clock three years, and the Maccabi Haifa marksman knew next to nothing about Israel or the Israeli football team. Born in Cordoba, Argentina, Colautti got to grips with the sport at Boca Juniors, where he also made his first professional start at the age of 18. Boca fielded him just six times in two seasons, however, before sending him out on loan to Swiss outfit Lugano in 2001/02. The situation hardly improved there and, with no goals to his name from nine appearances, he returned to Argentina, where he was immediately farmed out on loan again. Banfield was the destination this time, and thanks to ten goals in 32 games there, Colautti was handed another opportunity by Boca in 2003/04. However, disappointment remained just around the corner, as the youngster registered a solitary strike in 11 outings.
Those figures hardly read like the start of something special, but they were not enough to dissuade Maccabi Haifa when the Israeli club needed reinforcements in attack. Their vision was quickly rewarded as well, with Colautti finishing top-scorer in his first season, courtesy of a 25-goal haul. The following year, he helped the Greens to the championship title, and it was a matter of a few administrative procedures before he could become a naturalised citizen and perform the same miracles for the national team.
If Colautti's story sounds like a fairytale, then what can be said about the odyssey undertaken by Toto Tamuz? Born in Nigeria, Toto arrived in Israel at two years of age when his father, the former Nigerian international Clement Temile, signed with Beitar Netanya. A year later, the club declared bankruptcy, unable to pay its own players, and the Super Eagle left the country, entrusting his son to team-mate Yitzchak Gueta, who then joined Hapoel Petach-Tikva. Toto's parents never returned and he was unofficially adopted by an Israeli woman, Orit Tamuz, whose name he eventually took before officially becoming an Israeli citizen in 2007.
Things were much simpler on the pitch, meanwhile. Toto's talents immediately stood out with the Hapoel and national youth sides and his club handed him a first senior appearance in 2005/06, aged 17. The newcomer celebrated his coming of age with a brace in his first championship encounter, against FC Ashdod, and finished the campaign with nine goals from 28 outings. Unsurprisingly, a number of big sides sat up and took notice, including ambitious capital outfit Beitar Jerusalem, with whom he now sits top of the Israeli league.
International recognition logically followed suit too, and 62 minutes into a UEFA EURO 2008 qualifier against Andorra, Toto came on to make his debut. Typically, it took him just seven minutes to repay Kashtan's confidence in him by finding the back of the net as Israel completed a 4-1 victory. Then, a few days later, the newly capped senior international rejoined the Under-21 side to help beat France and earn a berth at the European Under-21 Championships.
Toto's talent is plain to see and his personal story absolutely inspiring, two factors that have earned him a place in the hearts of the Israeli public, in addition to his status as one of the brightest prospects in Israeli football. "Toto has incredible natural aptitude," remarked experienced Bolton midfielder Idan Tal, a mainstay in the national side. "He could well become a world-class striker in the next few years."
Sahar ready for next step
Those sentiments are similar to the thoughts expressed by Chelsea and England stalwart Frank Lampard, when asked to sum up Ben Sahar, another promising Israeli forward and a graduate of the west London club's youth academy. "He's made huge progress and he's good enough to be in the first team," said Lampard. "He's still young and has a long way to go, but he's got enormous potential and will win his place in the side if he carries on in the same way."
With Didier Drogba, Andriy Shevchenko and Arjen Robben standing in his way, the Chelsea first team may have to wait, but the Nivkheret (national team in Hebrew) have already seen their young prodigy in action. Impressive in a friendly against Ukraine in February, Sahar earned himself a call-up to the squad to take on England on Saturday (0-0) and Estonia in midweek (4-0).
Sent on as a substitute in the first match, he took the field opposite club-mates Lampard and John Terry, before inviting comparisons with another of the stars on view via a performance brimming with pace and power. "A lot of people are already calling him the Israeli Wayne Rooney," stated Tal. "That's maybe a little too much pressure on his shoulders. He's only 17 and his name is already on everyone's lips in Israel." Thanks to his two strikes in three minutes (77' and 80') against Estonia on Wednesday, the hype is unlikely to settle down any time soon.
Still, considering how many exciting young prospects are coming off the Israeli production line at the moment, Sahar could soon see someone else grabbing all the headlines. There is talk, for example, of 16-year-old Barcelona trainee Guy Assoulin joining his elders in the national team before long. Whether that happens or not, the future of Israeli football looks to be in safe hands, and if the country's qualification campaign for UEFA EURO 2008 comes down to goal difference once again, the chances are that the new generation of gifted strikers will swing the decision in Israel's favour this time.