Israel have surprised many with their impressive start in European Zone qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. The Blue and Whites currently lie second in Group F behind an imperious Russian side but ahead of mighty Portugal, albeit on goal difference. As fate would have it, the Lusitanians are set to visit Tel Aviv this Friday 22 March in a game that could prove decisive to the pair’s battle for a place in Brazil.
The man tasked with spearheading Israel’s attack this weekend will be Tomer Hemed, one of the national team’s best-known players who is currently on the books of Spain’s RCD Mallorca. With just days to go before the much-anticipated showdown, the striker chatted exclusively to FIFA.com about what we can expect from Friday’s duel and what overcoming Cristiano Ronaldo and Co would mean to the fans and players.
The moment of truth
Hemed is only too aware just how much will be at stake this weekend. Victory would keep his side on course for Brazil 2014, while defeat could deal a telling blow to their chances.
“We know the significance of the game – we’re very clear about that,” said the No10. “However, we also know the quality we possess, and we have enough talent to take all three points. Come what may, we’ll do everything in our power to get them.”
Israel are certainly no strangers to high-stake encounters, having come close to qualifying for major competitions in recent times. Hemed, as a figurehead of this generation of players, is well aware of this and keen for history not to repeat itself.
“We’ve had some great players in recent years but we’ve never been able to take that final step. That’s something we’re trying to put right now. We have a great group at present and we’re very tight knit,” said the team’s top-scorer in these qualifiers, with five goals in three games.
But it is not just the new generation who are ready to stand up and be counted. Eli Guttman’s side depends heavily on renowned and vastly experienced veterans like Dudu Aouate, Tal Ben Haim and Yossi Benayoun, who, like Hemed, are all competing in Europe’s top leagues.
“I think it’s vital we have players like these, who are well accustomed to competing at the highest level,” added the 25-year-old. "That brings significant international experience to the team, something that can be passed on to the younger members of the squad."
Three points the objective
The front-man has an impressive goals-to-games ratio with his national team, having netted eight times in 11 appearances. Naturally he would love to help his team-mates by adding to that tally against the Portuguese, a team he has the very highest regard for. “Cristiano Ronaldo obviously stands out but, in terms of players, they’re a high calibre side – as they demonstrated at EURO 2012. That means we’ll need to play to the best of our ability to keep our hopes alive.”
Those hopes are shared by the football-loving Israeli population, for whom the beautiful game is an important source of entertainment amid a frequently unstable international environment.
“At present, things are better in our country,” said an upbeat Hemed. “But that said, any bit of joy we can bring to our supporters would be very welcome. I don’t know any football fans more enthusiastic than ours. My fellow countrymen follow our every move, so I know if we were to beat Portugal, there’d be a real party.”
As we concluded our conversation, the Mallorca forward explained what he felt Israeli football needed to do to progress: “We obviously have to obtain good results, and going to Brazil would be wonderful. But we also have to export more players so that in the future we’ll have more talent at our disposal and become regular participants in the major international tournaments.”