U-21 EURO 2013 / How Israel's National Youth League Was Buillt

Coach Guy Luzon received a playerless team - all the former U-21 team members had aged out - and ad to build a golden team from scratch.

When Guy Luzon is asked about his greatest accomplishment with the Under-21 national team, he is quick to point to the fact that nine members of the Euro 2013 squad were first called to the national team in October 2010. Luzon, who received a playerless team - all the former U-21 team members had aged out - had to build the team from scratch.

To the suggestion that talented players, let alone stars, were hard to find in the new age group, Luzon enthusiastically replied at the time, "This is a great challenge. Nothing is easier than receiving a ready-made team. I have a chance to begin from nothing and I'm sure that by 2013 everyone will be proud of the national team."

Luzon wasted no time in walking the walk: "On Fridays I go to see Leumit league games all over the country," he said at the time.

"On Saturday mornings I watch youth games and in the evening, Premier League games. It's easiest to choose the better-known players in the league. My problem is that most of the young players in the Premier League are already overage. I have to search to find tomorrow's star. It's not easy, but I love challenges. Let's talk again in two years' time."

Luzon drove to Kiryat Shmona, Sakhnin, Nazereth, Haifa, Acre and Be'er Sheva in his hunt. "I would watch five games every week, beginning in the north and ending in the south," he recalls. Throughout the weekend he would scribble endlessly in his notepad, recording details about potential recruits. He knew exactly what he was looking for.

"The U-21 Euro will feature the strongest national teams on the Continent; That's why I have to pick not only the best and most talented, but also those who can go the distance and not break down at the moment of truth, when the games begin."

Twenty-three players were called to the first practice session, two years and seven months ago. The first squad included Nir Biton, Hassan Abu Zeid, Boris Klaiman, Arik Yanko, Ofer Verta, Mohammed Gadir, Ofir Davidzada, Adi Elisha, Sari Falah, Yisrael Zaguri, Firas Mugrabi, Alon Turjeman, Omri Ben Haroush and Marwan Kabha. As noted, nine of them will feature in the games; were it not for his injury, Falah would have been the 10th.

Luzon did not call up two of the most outstanding talents who already played abroad, Nir Asoulin and Nes Zamir. Both had already been picked by pundits as the next big thing in Israeli soccer. They were eventually called to the squad, but Luzon doubted their fit with the team's needs.

"I need players with a certain character," he explains, "and with all due respect to talent, there isn't much time at the European championship. There are three games, each of which is the equivalent of a cup final, so I had to find the right mix between talent and mental strength. Of course we need talented players, but they must also be determined, hardworking, cool-headed and highly athletic."

It didn't take Luzon long to build the backbone of his Euro squad, which initially consisted of 12 players. He continued to search for the rest, at training sessions and practice games.

Since Israel, as the host nation, automatically qualified for the championship and did not benefit from official games, Luzon decided to hold a marathon practice session at Shefayim once a month and practice games at least every three months.

He followed the players' development, often watching them play in the youth league or even in the practice sessions of their Premier League teams.

Luzon also kept in close touch with the coaches of all the national teams, meeting frequently with Luis Fernández, Eli Gutman and Eli Ohana as well as many of their Premier League counterparts. He stressed the importance of discipline and repeatedly warned his players to stay out of trouble on their teams.

The moment anything went amiss, Luzon didn't hesitate to levy suspensions or even, as with Zaguri and Eli Dassa, to dispense with the players' services entirely.

Biton and Eyal Golasa were soon marked as his leading players. Luzon believed in them, whether or not they were playing on their teams.

"I really didn't care whether Golasa was playing for Maccabi Haifa or had a dip in form. As far as I'm concerned, he's a leading player for the U-21 national team, even if he will start on the bench."

Golasa came through with spectacular perfomances for the national team, even when he was warming Reuven Atar's bench in Haifa.

After Luzon announced the final squad some observers came down on him for leaving out Maccabi Tel Aviv players Dor Micha and Moshe Lugasi.

Luzon told them it pained him to leave them out of the squad, but explained that because the national team would have to focus on defense he needed players who were stronger in that area.

The decision to choose Zaguri over Lugasi and Micha came down to the fact that whereas Lugasi and Micha were accustomed to playing behind the strikers on their team, at Hapoel Ramat Gan Zaguri had gained experience in the kind of tactics Luzon plans to employ in the tournament.

Luzon has already declared that reaching the semis would be an amazing achievement as far as he's concerned, but that he would also be satisfied if the team played well enough to thrill and win the local fans in the group stage.

"The most important object is to have the fans enjoy the games," he says, "we want them to come to the stadium and leave holding their heads high. Reaching the semifinals would already be a dream come true."

Sharon Bokov
Nimrod Glickman