Soccer / World Cup Qualifier Postmortem

Pain and Constipation in St. Petersburg

When the soccer players suffer, the fans suffer too; Israel needs a smiling coach and happy players

In a somewhat strained paraphrase of Golda Meir's infamous saying, I will never forgive the Israeli national team who lost 1-3 to Russia on Tuesday night for making me agree with every word that Shlomo Scharf uttered as a pundit during the broadcast of the game. But I do have extenuating circumstances for this weak choice of words; I was just forced to watch 94 minutes of the Eli Guttman-era national team. That really drains one's inspiration.

Before the game I paused to think that the embarrassing 1-1 draw with Azerbaijan was actually a blessing in disguise. Apart from lowering expectations and putting the national team in its true context, the players also travelled to Russia with nothing to lose. Only a sensational win in St. Petersburg could somehow give the team a chance to still hope to qualify from the group. And that's what one plays qualifiers for, in order to qualify, right?

Depends who you ask. Guttman did not come to win the game, but stayed loyal to the policy he announced in Ramat Gan after the draw with Azerbaijan: "The Russians will come all in a rage, we can't allow the national team to fall apart," he said. And that was Israel's attitude for the game. It was enough for 45 minutes of dignified defense, but no more. In the end, Guttman and his players were forced to eat the stinking fish and were still kicked out of town.

That was a really strange attitude to a last-chance game, an exact portrayal of the boss' character. Guttman was and remained, even at the peak of his success, a threatened, closed, haunted and suffering individual. It's funny that some journalists were surprised when he decided to bar the press from the team's practice sessions. If he could, he would bar the players from the practice sessions as well.

One can understand Guttman after the fierce, unfounded criticism of our supposedly imperial national team. Still, on Tuesday the coach sacrificed the team for his personal prestige, which is unforgivable. He preferred to park the bus and employ a full defensive strategy, than to go for the jugular and try to pull off a sensational victory that would somehow leave Israel with a chance to qualify. He preferred not to take risks, as long as the team wouldn't fall apart. A team that must win doesn't begin the game with a single striker, does not defend with 10 players in its own half, and does not substitute a striker for a striker and a defensive midfielder for a defensive midfielder when it finds itself trailing.

It was frustrating because in the few minutes in the first half when the Israeli players allowed themselves to string a few passes together and attack, they looked less miserable than expected. And in the 94th minute when, for the first time in the game, Israel managed to outnumber the Russians during a counterattack, the ball actually ended up in the net. Even at that point one couldn't detect even a slight smile among the players.

Why on earth, did the players — and the coach — seem to be constipated and in such pain during the whole campaign? Don't they understand that the direct result is pain and constipation among all those attempting to watch and support the team?

So here is my revolutionary idea for the next campaign: Get only players and coaches who seriously know how to smile, forget about getting through to a major tournament and focus instead on attacking soccer that is fun to play and fun to watch. If we're not destined to make it to a major tournament, aren't we entitled to enjoy ourselves a bit on the way to nowhere?

Sefi Margiso