Israel’s chances of qualifying for UEFA EURO 2012 in Poland/Ukraine could well come down to how they perform in their next two matches against Croatia and Greece. That, at least, is the opinion of their free-scoring forward Elyaniv Barda, whom FIFA.com caught up with at his Belgian club, Racing Genk.
Forty years is a long time, in anyone’s book. As far as long-suffering football fans are concerned, four decades of near misses and lost opportunities have the potential to severely test their collective patience. Mexico 1970 marked Israel’s first – and so far only – appearance at the final stages of a FIFA World Cup™, and the country has been desperate for a repeat performance ever since. But before minds turn to Brazil 2014, the immediate objective is Poland/Ukraine and EURO 2012, a tournament for which the Blue and Whites have never qualified.
The nation’s first two outings in Group F, which produced a 3-1 victory over Malta and a scoreless draw with Georgia, were greeted with concern by unconvinced supporters and local media, whose expectations have increased in line with the impressive yet ultimately unsuccessful qualifying campaigns for EURO 2008 and the 2010 FIFA World Cup. “The national team is on the right track,” states Barda. “That said, if we don’t pick up any points from our next two games, qualifying will become something of a mission impossible,” he adds.
For Israel’s players, it is no longer a question of simply taking part. They firmly believe that the time has come to begin gatecrashing the grand international gatherings that they have missed out on in the past, and a win in their home clash with Croatia would represent a huge step in that particular direction. “The last time we played Croatia in qualifying, they beat us twice, but only just. We’ll be out for revenge,” explains the Genk striker.
“We’re going to be playing two sides that have designs on topping the group, and rightly so. They’re both direct rivals of ours, which makes these matches absolutely crucial. They’re hurdles in our path that we’re simply going to have to overcome,” says the former Hapoel Tel Aviv player.
One of the first names on the teamsheet since making his full international debut back in 2007, the amiable Barda, who also spent two years performing with distinction for Israel’s U-21 side, is lucid and honest in his analysis of his country’s chances of success. For example, he makes no attempt to hide the fact that without the injured Yossi Benayoun in the line-up, the upcoming qualifiers will pose an even tougher challenge. “Without him, it’s certainly going to be very tricky. We were all hoping he would be able to play, because on the pitch he’s a real leader,” he says.
But Barda is equally convinced that recently installed national coach Luis Fernandez has enough high-quality players at his disposal to make up for the loss of the talented Chelsea star. If Barda’s reaction is anything to go by, it is clear the French tactician’s impact has lived up to the hype surrounding his appointment in March of this year.
“Top-level football is all about the little details, such as remaining totally focused for 90 minutes. In the past, we’ve been guilty of letting high-pressure matches pass us by, because of factors like that. In training, the coach has therefore been working constantly on our concentration levels, especially during set pieces,” Barda explains.
While former PSG coach Fernandez has made it clear that losing his principal playmaker is not ideal, he has been quick to talk up the rest of his team. “Of course it would have been nice to approach these matches in a different manner. Despite Benayoun’s absence, this group of players has a lot to offer – I’ve been working with them for quite a few months now, and I’m hopeful of securing positive results in these games,” said Fernandez earlier this week.
Barda is aware that different tactical approaches for each match are a prerequisite: “We’re set to come up against two very different styles. The Croatians like to hold on to the ball and tend to have quite an attacking mindset. As for Greece, they’ll likely line up in a much more defensive fashion and will be difficult to break down. But the coach has been doing a lot of video work with us; he’s been showing us how to adapt to different opponents.”
The Fernandez formula
Barda, who speaks French by dint of having a Tunisian father, is effusive in his praise for the former France midfielder, one of the stars of the team that finished third at the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico.
“Bringing in a foreign coach was something that had been talked about for quite some time, so it wasn’t really a surprise when it finally happened. French culture is a good fit with our own culture and our football traditions,” he explains.
“The way the coach wants us to play the game is already in our blood, after all. He is hugely enthusiastic, and his training sessions are good and intensive. He has a strong relationship with his players and often takes part in training matches. He’s a man on a mission.”
Fernandez explained recently that if that mission was to end in success, things would have to be done his way, and his way alone. “Even if that sometimes rubs journalists and former players up the wrong way,” he said. “My goal is to introduce another way of working, to try to ensure that nothing is left to chance.”
Ahead of Israel’s two critical qualifying matches, Fernandez can count on a dozen players currently plying their trade at European clubs, such as Majorca goalkeeper Doudou Aouate, Tal Ben Haim and Dekel Keinan, centre-backs for West Ham and Blackpool respectively, and Barda, of course.
“Having more and more Israelis playing in Europe is a clear sign of the progress we’re making. Things are definitely heading upwards,” says Barda with a smile. As an international attacker, the Genk-based goalgetter knows better than most about advancing to the next level, but can his country make the same leap?