The Israeli under-21 national team came agonizingly close to recording its first ever victory in the European Championship finals Wednesday night, only to concede an equalizer in the first minute of injury time.
Facing a strong Norwegian team in the opening game of Euro 2013 − the first time that Israel has hosted a major soccer tournament − Israel was cheered on by 13,000 fans at the new municipal stadium in Netanya.
Ahead of the kick-off, there was some good news for coach Guy Luzon, when his captain, Nir Biton, passed a late fitness test and was included in the opening line-up.
And it was Biton who gave Israel the lead in the 16th minute. The Norwegians had looked far more threatening in the opening exchanges, stretching the home defense on several occasions and forcing a couple of good saves from Boris Kleyman in the Israel goal.
But when Omar Elabdellaoui hacked down Omri Ben Harush inside the penalty box, Polish referee Pawel Gil had no hesitation and pointed to the spot. Biton stepped up and stroked an unstoppable shot past Orjan Haskjold Nyland to give the host nation a dream start.
The visitors continued to enjoy most of the play, however, and it came as little surprise when they pulled level in the 24th minute. Stefan Johansen clipped in a cross from the left toward Marcus Pedersen, who held off his marker before swiveling to shoot. Kleyman dived to his right but could not keep the ball out of the net.
The game swung back in Israel’s direction a minute before half-time, however, when Vegar Hedenstad was adjudged to have held back Mohammad Kalibat, who was bearing down on goal with real menace. The referee correctly ruled that Hedenstad was the last defender and that his foul had denied Israel a goal-scoring opportunity, so he had no choice but to show the burly defender a straight red card.
Israel wasted the resultant free kick and, ironically, it was Norway that came closest to taking the lead in the second half. The visitors hit the woodwork three times and forced more excellent saves from Kleyman, but were unable to get their noses ahead.
Israel had a golden opportunity to restore its lead in the 70th minute, but, having controlled the ball well, Munas Dabbur shot over with the goal at his mercy.
A minute later, Israel had the lead. Ofir Krieff’s pass was cleverly held up by Dabbur, which gave substitute Alon Turgeman time and space to line up a powerful volley from near the penalty spot, leaving the Norwegian goalie with no chance.
Just as it seemed that Israel was about to record a historic victory, however, Norway snatched the equalizer that it had threatened and, frankly, deserved. Havard Nielsen coolly chested a long pass into the path of Harmeet Singh, whose left-footed shot flew past Kleyman and into the corner of the net.
At the final whistle, the Israeli players reacted as if they had lost, but the truth is that a draw was a fair result, which leaves both teams with a sporting chance of qualifying for the semi-finals.
After the game, Luzon admitted that his team had “played badly,” but added that “if we scored two goals and got a point then this is a good thing. I am proud of my team; I think we played a fantastic game. We created lots of chances and could have scored more goals.”
Norway coach Tor Ole Skullerud was also upset with his players’ performance.
“I am not satisfied with the way that we played,” he said. “Even if we had won this match, the thing that matters to me is the way that we played. I want to see my team as an organized team defensively and this did not happen. However, we scored our historic first goal at this tournament so I am satisfied with this. The good thing is that this is the worst match that we have ever played so from here it’s going to be better.”