Now it's official: Luis Fernandez is Israel's new national soccer coach. The Frenchman worked out all the details of his contract on Sunday with Avi Luzon, the Israel Football Association chairman, and other soccer officials. The 18-month deal commences May 1.
After the over two-hour meeting that included deputy chairman Stern Haluba, Fernandez held a press conference to make the announcement. The new coach said that it would be a major challenge to take Israel to Euro 2012. "There's a lot of talent here and I'll give the maximum to make it happen," he said. "I still know the players here from my time with Beitar, and I have followed their improvement. Soccer here has made strides forward."
Luzon opened his address by reiterating that he wanted all along to appoint a foreigner to take over the national squad who would meet the IFA's professional and economic criteria. He also said he felt there was great chemistry between Fernandez and IFA officials, and that despite the language problem he felt a tremendous "click" from the start of the meeting. "We're happy that he will be the national team coach," he added. "He is the best choice among the coaches we could get."
Fernandez told reporters that only Israelis would serve on his coaching staff. "There are a lot of talented coaches here," he told reporters. "I'm interested in having around me people who know Israeli soccer better than I do. I'll follow the league matches. I'll talk with team coaches and do the best I can to win."
Luzon also discussed the other leading candidate, German coach Winfried Schafer. "I did some additional checking regarding Fernandez and Schafer, and reached the conclusion that Luis is a better fit," he said.
The chairman stressed that he was impressed by what Fernandez brought to the meeting. "He is familiar not only with Yossi Benayoun but with all our soccer players who play in Europe, including [Real Madrid youth team member] Nir Mansour," he said. "He even demonstrated expertise on [Eyal] Golasa at Lazio. He told us about Maccabi Haifa in the Champions League, Hapoel Tel Aviv in the Europa League. He has broad knowledge about Israeli soccer."
During Fernandez's last stint in Israel with Beitar Jerusalem, the French coach got into tangles with the local press. "He told us during our meeting that the Israeli media is waiting to feast with him, but he has no intention of talking to the press like he did at Beitar," Luzon said. "He plans to dedicate time to the media in an organized fashion. It's not the same Fernandez on the national team as he was the first time around with Beitar Jerusalem."
Fernandez already avoided his first confrontation with the press when he arrived in Israel for Sunday's meeting. On instruction from Luzon, he only brought carry-on luggage. He was picked up immediately after arriving in the pre-dawn hours and went straight to the Hilton hotel without talking to journalists. He was slated to return to France this morning at 6 A.M., and plans to return after Passover to find a place to live.
Fernandez said Sunday that he missed mixed Jerusalem grill and hummus from his previous stint in Israel. At least for the next 18 months, he'll have time to catch up on these culinary passions.