The national soccer team will play against Luxembourg tomorrow in a qualifier for the 2010 World Cup, though it has already effectively lost any chance of making it into next year's tournament in South Africa. For 40 years, ever since the 1970 Cup, Israeli soccer has failed to reach the finals of either of the major international tournaments for which it is eligible, the World Cup and the European Championships.
After each failure, the national team's coach is blamed. The players, who include stars in top European leagues, are mostly exonerated, as are the heads of the Israel Football Association. But in fact, this protracted series of failures has many fathers.
Israeli soccer, and especially the national team, refuses to undertake long-term reforms. Immediate success is expected, though there is no infrastructure - for instance, no soccer academies for promising youngsters - and no one seems prepared for the hard, orderly and carefully supervised work that has been done in other countries whose soccer teams are of the same caliber as Israel's. Latvia, which defeated Israel in Ramat Gan on Saturday, reached the Euro finals in 2004; Slovenia did the same in 2000 and reached the World Cup tourney in 2002. Turkey, which 20 years ago dreamed of being Israel, has established itself in the big tournaments, reaching its pinnacle of achievement in the semifinal of the 2002 World Cup.
Instead of getting down to hard work, Israel pinned its hopes on the easy draw it got for the qualifiers as a shortcut to the 2010 tournament. The chairman of the IFA, Avi Luzon, even went on record as saying that he would resign if Israel did not make it to South Africa. He seems to have forgotten this pledge, despite the dismal results. But luckily for him, blame can be laid at the doorstep of coach Dror Kashtan, whose term is up anyway.
Applications for the job are now being filled. Eyal Berkovic, a great player in the past and also no small troublemaker, has been mentioned as the next national coach, and he would be a popular choice among the nation's soccer lovers. So profoundly has despair set in that people are saying if we cannot make the finals, let us at least have some fireworks.
The national team's debacle is all the more noticeable in light of Maccabi Haifa's triumph in qualifying for the UEFA Champions League. Hapoel Tel Aviv has also become a regular participant in European play. This is no accident. Hard work, based on serious thought, commitment and maintaining high standards, can lead to achievements, even in Israel.
But as long as the IFA fails to make use of the top-drawer professionals that exist in this country, and instead insists on treating the national team as a ball to be kicked around by hacks, both the World Cup and the European Championships will remain beyond the reach of Israeli soccer.
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