Saturday night’s flight to St. Petersburg reminded some of the national team players and staff of the journey back from Riga several years ago, after Dror Kashtan's team conceded a silly equalizer in added time against Latvia, missing an opportunity to go top of their Euro 2012 qualification group. The flight from Riga left immediately after the game; this time the plane took off almost three hours after the final whistle of the frustrating 1-1 home draw against Azerbaijan.
Throughout last week, coach Eli Guttman repeatedly said that the object was to board the flight with an extra three points, making the journey more peaceful and optimistic. "We would love to keep the dream alive," he said. "I spare no thoughts for the game against Russia [on Tuesday] at this point. I want to win the game on Saturday with the support of 35,000 fans and then happily board the flight."
Well, that didn't happen; and no happiness was evident in the flight from Ben-Gurion Airport to St. Petersburg either.
Such gloom hasn’t been felt for years in national team flights. Guttman didn't move from his seat, falling asleep immediately after take-off and waking up only two hours later to cover himself with a blanket. The coach did not utter a world throughout the flight. His assistant, Yossi Abukasis, watched a Leonardo DiCaprio film.
After a while the players got over the initial shock, toyed with their smartphones and talked to journalists. Gal Alberman, Shiran Yeini and Eran Zehavi sat together analyzing the game, until they gave up and turned to discuss their team, Maccabi Tel Aviv. The busiest man on the flight was the national team doctor, Mark Rosnovsky, who handed out pills against headaches. One player mumbled: "The pill that can help with our headache has yet to be invented."
One of the quietest players on the flight was Lior Refaelov. The Club Brugge forward is deeply disappointed with his standing in the national team and seems detached from his teammates. Still, the most frustrated player on the plane was Itay Shechter, who was angry and outspoken throughout the flight. The criticism of Guttman's decision to start with Shecher really got to him.
"What do they all want of Guttman?" he asked. "Does anybody think he doesn't want to succeed? That he lets me play because he likes me? That's rubbish. Guttman believes in me, is aware of my capabilities and my worth, and therefore wants me on the team. When we played against Northern Ireland I wasn't completely fit, but he started me and you all know what I did in that game. The criticism isn't soccer-related, there are personal motives. There are agents and journalists who have combined interests against me. One can criticize me and say that I'm good or not good enough, but they went too far. The England coach believes in Danny Welbeck despite Wellbeck's poor scoring form for Manchester United. So what? If a player fails to score for a certain period then he's no good? Only in Israel the criticism is so unprofessional and so personal."
Shechter's Hapoel Tel Aviv teammate, Omer Damari, heard the conversation and joined us. I asked Shechter if he agrees with the contention that Guttman started him despite having other strikers who are in better form, and that the journalists' criticism also reflects the sentiment of the public who does, indeed, admire Shechter but believes that his present form doesn't merit a place among the opening 11.
"It's a shame no one measured the distance I covered in this game," Shechter replied. "I ran all the time, I didn't rest for a second. Is there a better striker than me in the team? With all due respect to all the other strikers, the league just began a few weeks ago and nobody can say that there are other strikers who scored many goals, and that I'm lagging behind. Nobody can really determine which strikers are in better form. If Guttman decided that I'm good enough to start, he probably knows why. Everybody loves to say that he prefers Hapoel players, but I can tell you that in this point in time I'm the best striker in the national team."
Damari listened quietly. Shechter was referring to his two assists in the 2-0 win against Northern Ireland.
The plane landed in St. Petersburg shortly after dawn. No local journalists showed up, and even the security wasn't that tight — one police car escorted the players from the airport to Grand Hotel Europe. At least in terms of the hotel, the Israeli national team is in the top league, together with President Bill Clinton, Queen Elizabeth and other celebrities. It seems doubtful that St. Petersburg residents were aware that the Israeli team had arrived in town. Until Saturday, Russian team coach Fabio Capello wasn’t too preoccupied with Israel; after the draw with Azerbaijan he can be completely at ease, in contrast to Israel's players and coach.