There are those who think that the national team has nothing to offer, and there are those who think that the present batch of players bodes well for the future of Israeli soccer. But whatever they think, most observers of the national team point to one facet of the game that can be relied on: its midfield.
National team coach Luis Fernandez can at least feel confident about his trio of midfielders. He knows that unlike his predecessors in the job, he has three players who form the sturdy backbone of his team - he just needs to see them perform at the level of their abilities. Beram Kayal, Almog Cohen and Bibras Natcho as a unit can link the team together.
Yesterday they landed, one at a time, each from a different European destination, at Ben-Gurion International Airport to considerable media attention, each carrying a virtual sack of compliments from their clubs: Kayal has become the crowd's favorite at Celtic at the top of the Scottish Premiership, Cohen has left not a few mouths agape with some stellar performances for FC Nuremberg in the Bundesliga, and Natcho has exceeded expectations by assuming the role of Russian champion Rubin Kazan's playmaker. And they are all only 22 years old.
"This is a remarkable situation," says former star Alon Hazan. "Israeli soccer has not been blessed with many players of this type in the past. We've had some talented defensive midfielders who only performed well in the local league. This trio is playing in top European leagues and proving their ability at the highest of levels. Take these three and add a fit Yossi Benayoun, and you've got a midfield as good as most in Europe."
On Saturday, Latvia will be waiting for them. Kayal, Cohen and Natcho will have to get along without Benayoun. We'll see how they cope.
Natcho and Kayal's abilities were recognized at a young age by their former clubs, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa, respectively. Haifa knew that the youngster making his way through its youth program was something special, as he repeatedly scored goals from the middle of the park seemingly at will. "We could see he has what I call 'positive chutzpah,'" says his coach in Haifa, Ronny Levy. "Beram was always looking for the way forward. I used to laugh and ask him if he thinks he's [Arsenal midfielder Cesc] Fabregas."
"From a very young age," recalls Natcho, for his part, "I was marked down at Hapoel Tel Aviv to make the senior team. For me, it was natural that I would make the grade."
Kayal and Natcho have been playing together on national squads since they were youngsters. Last summer both packed their bags and left to realize their European dreams. "Our advantage," says Kayal, "is that we grew up and advanced through the national teams together, are great friends and after so many years know each other's game intimately and have blind communication. We don't have to talk on the field - we know that when one of us advances up the field, the other should hang back. It happens by itself. Natcho is the engineer, Cohen is [AC Milan's bulldog Gennaro Ivan "Rino"] Gattuso, and Ronny used to tell me I'm Fabregas. Everybody knows that the midfield is the heart of any team. It's the link between defense and attack without which a team cannot function."
Cohen's teammates dubbed him "Gattuso" because of his fighting spirit and uncompromising aggressiveness on the field. His career has blossomed relatively late. As a Maccabi Netanya player, he had difficulty reaching the junior or youth national teams - those places were held by Natcho and Kayal. His breakthrough came with the Under-21 team, after former Netanya coach Lothar Matthaus gave him the midfield holder's role, and he grabbed the opportunity. "Matthaus," Cohen said in an interview last year, "upgraded me in six months in a way that no coach has done in my career."
His chance came when Kayal was promoted to the senior national squad. "There's always been talk about the lack of central midfielders in Israeli soccer," says Cohen. "About five or six years ago, I remember that all the talk was about the need to groom new players for this in-demand role. Now we have some very good defensive midfielders, although we still have some way to go before we prove our worth."
The importance of this trio is critical to the whole team's performance. In modern soccer, the rear of the midfield is the engine that powers successful teams. "There's little doubt that this present batch has the potential to be the best ever," says Nir Klinger, a former national team midfield general himself and now a leading coach. "They have to prove this."
However, former national team coach Shlomo Sherf warns against too-high expectations. "They are still young and still have to prove themselves. It's too early to crown them. Obviously, if the midfield is performing well, it's easier to set up goal-scoring chances, but every position [on the field] is critical. First let's see them produce the goods, then we'll talk about how great they are."
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