Soccer

Israel Misses Chance to Qualify for World Cup, Extending Absence to 44 Years

Israel’s national soccer team makes impressive but ultimately futile draw against Portugal; the big question surrounds the future of coach Eli Guttman.

LISBON – The Israeli national soccer team recorded an impressive but ultimately futile 1-1 draw against Portugal in Lisbon on Friday night, in its penultimate qualifying match for the 2014 World Cup. Israel can no longer qualify for Brazil, extending its absence from the World Cup finals to 44 years (its sole appearance coming in Mexico, 1970). It will try to end another disappointing campaign with victory over Northern Ireland on Tuesday. The big question, however, surrounds the future of national team coach Eli Guttman, who sent out mixed messages in the run-up to the Portugal game.

Guttman decided to play with veteran goalkeeper Dudu Awat between the posts, and started the game with Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Omri Ben-Harush at left-back. Those two decisions paid off handsomely, with Awat playing his best game in the national team colors for years and Ben-Harush putting on a hugely impressive performance along the left wing.

The Portuguese, who had to win to keep alive their chances of snagging top place in the group ahead of Russia and avoiding a potentially tricky playoff, did not get the kind of support they are used to from their most important player – Cristiano Ronaldo. The Real Madrid superstar was unfocused and edgy, and contributed almost nothing to his team’s game. The fact that six regular players were missing from the Portugal team also took its toll.

The first half began with both teams apparently hesitant; the home side failed to create any real chances early on and it was the visiting team that twice found itself inside the opponent’s penalty area – without really threatening to score. In the 16th minute, Eden Ben Basat was gifted Israel’s first genuine chance of the match. He took advantage of a poor clearance by the home defense but, alone in front of goalkeeper Rui Patricio, failed to find the target.

That was the cue for Portugal to assert its undoubted superiority. The home side upped the tempo and even the quiet home crowd started to make some noise. Portugal created several goal-scoring opportunities, bombarding Awat’s goal with shots. And in the 27th minute, the pressure paid off. Defender Ricardo Costa headed home from close range to give the Portuguese a lead, but they were unable to increase the margin by halftime.

In the second half, Israel played a much more open game – clearly having been given the message that they had nothing to lose. Defenders Ben-Harush and Eyal Meshumar joined the attack more frequently, but the Israeli equalizer came courtesy of a moment of madness from the home goalie. In the 85th minute, he gifted the ball to Ben Basat, who had the simplest of tasks to score. Portugal pressed for a winner in the final minutes, but was unable to breach the Israeli defense and had to make do with a disappointing draw.

The result, coupled with Russia’s 4-0 win over Luxembourg, leaves Portugal needing Azerbaijan to beat the Russians on Tuesday if it wants to secure automatic qualification by beating Luxembourg.

Guttman’s future

At the final whistle on Friday, the color returned almost visibly to Guttman’s face; he gave his assistant, Yossi Abuksis, a hug and thanked all of the players individually as they trudged off the pitch – a sure sign he was pleased with their performance.

At the post-match press conference, however, Guttman insisted he was not a happy man. “The way we threw away the lead in the home game against Portugal was a major blow,” he said. “But I will only sum up this qualification campaign after Tuesday’s game. Until then, nothing is over.”

On his way to the press conference, Guttman exchanged embraces with members of the Portugal coaching staff. The fact that his team took two points from Portugal in the two matches has only added to his standing.

All eyes now turn to Israel Football Association chairman Avi Luzon, who will decide whether Guttman continues as national team coach. Guttman, for his part, has intimated to IFA officials that he believes he deserves another chance to lead the national team to its first major tournament in over 40 years. “The national team has come on in leaps and bounds under my leadership,” he told friends, who relayed the message to Luzon. “The team is looking good, I have promoted new players and we got better as the tournament progressed.”

According to sources close to the coach, he believes there’s no Israeli coach alive who could qualify for the World Cup from the same group as Russia and Portugal. “He’s very proud of the fact that, in both matches against Portugal, Israel managed to neutralize the threat from Ronaldo. As far as he is concerned, that is something that any coach anywhere in the world would be proud of.”

AP