Israel’s strange qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup Finals in Brazil will come to an end on Tuesday evening, in a match against Northern Ireland. Israel was twice thrashed by Russia, and twice held to draws by lowly Azerbaijan, yet it also achieved a fine victory in Belfast and two encouraging draws with Portugal. The road may have been an odd one, but the outcome was oh-so-predictable: a respectable third place behind the group’s two strongest sides, Russia and Portugal.
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So, was the campaign a success or failure? “I don’t think this campaign can be called a failure,” midfielder Bibras Natkho tells Haaretz. “We’re finishing in a realistic position. We wanted, tried and hoped to upset Russia or Portugal, but both of them are better than us."
With such an approach – including from the coach – we’ll never make the finals of a major tournament, because there will always be two teams better than us in our qualification group.
“You have to believe that we will surprise and qualify for a tournament,” said the Circassian from Kafr Kama in the Galilee, who pays for Rubin Kazan in the Russian Premier League. “That’s the beauty of soccer - that there are surprises. Sure, it hasn’t happened to us yet, but you have to believe it will. We will always face two teams better than us [in qualification groups], but sometimes they are two strong teams and sometimes the top-ranked teams aren’t that strong and the lower-ranked teams have to take advantage of that.
“Before the campaign began hopes were high that we could do it, but we didn’t. The truth must be told: We are not among Europe’s soccer-playing lions. If we haven’t been able to succeed for so many generations of players, then we’re obviously not good enough.”
Head coach Eli Guttman said the national team has progressed throughout the campaign. In what sense have you progressed?
“Eli Guttman took over at Hapoel Tel Aviv when we were rock-bottom and turned us into a great team, but not in one day. Eli needs to work over time if we’re going to see real progress. Against Russia, for example, we let in a goal when their striker found himself alone in front of the goalkeeper. He worked on that with us, and the fact is that since then, we haven’t conceded another goal in a one-on-one situation. As individuals, much depends on how a player trains with his team. The national team coach’s role is not to teach us how to play soccer. He brings with him a systematic approach, and has to decide which players suit the national team squad or the starting 11 for any specific game.
“I won’t say whether Eli should continue in the role, so as not to be accused of not being objective because he regularly fields me for games. I don’t think there’s an Israeli coach today who is a level above Eli. Anyway, every Israeli national team coach before him had at least two [two-year] terms, so why not Eli? There is criticism of him, but it’s clear to everyone that the criticism isn’t professional. That’s transparent.”
The draw in Portugal was a respectable result, but why were you so angered about the celebration around the victory over France 20 years ago (when Israel beat the French 3-2 in Paris)?
“I respect the national team players and coaches of the past, but they don’t respect us. I don’t know what they feel, but to get down on players in such an unprofessional way? I have no idea where that comes from and why they’re doing it. We’re preparing for the game in Portugal, and the players and coaches of yesteryear pat themselves on the back for their achievement. They claim that France at the time boasted four players of Ronaldo’s standard. Come on! For the past 20 years there hasn’t been even one player of Ronaldo’s standard in world soccer. It’s an attempt to play down our abilities.
“I’m not scorning their victory, which was a real achievement, but I don’t understand how people who have been in our place do not encourage the successive generations. It’s as if they want us to fail. It could be that the great players of the past are frustrated that they never reached a major tournament and are afraid that we could create an upset and qualify for the World Cup Finals – which they couldn’t do. The media criticism is also unprofessional and ill-founded.”
Eran Zahavi says the players shouldn’t read the criticism in the press so as not to become angry, but it doesn’t look like you took that approach seriously.
“I have no problem with criticism, as long as it’s serious and professional. In Israel, there’s a sort-of competition going on: Who is the most critical, the most counterproductive. It’s easy for the media to criticize me if I’m not successful in Europe. If they criticize me I don’t get angry, but if they unjustifiably criticize my teammates, then that really angers me. Most of the criticism has nothing to do with the reality. Even before the game, the media told the Israeli public that Portugal was fielding a weakened team, so that if we did the unimaginable and achieved a result, the achievement wouldn’t look so great.
“What haven’t they done to belittle our playing level? They said Ronaldo wasn’t chasing his defenders at all. They took the second-best player in the world, who in a second can win a game for his team, and turned him into an insignificant, mediocre player. Where’s the logic? Where’s the balance? Is there nothing right about the national team? The criticism doesn’t affect me, but it seeps down to the fans. In Europe, you see fans applauding their team right up to the final whistle, even if it is losing. We should learn from the European experience.”
From conversations with the national squad, it seems that the players want to get this campaign out of the way and return to their clubs. Do you also feel this way?
“We’re really enjoying ourselves together, but there’s a problem. It’s good for me at Rubin Kazan – the media is far away and nobody turns up at training sessions and begins to talk all sorts of rubbish. Every time the national team gathers for five days, the media is all over the place, everyone wants to find something negative in order to sell [newspapers] and stay in the public gaze. There are a lot of emotions involved, and a lot of pressure, too. The difference between playing for a European club and the national team is great, and I find that difficult. If five days in Portugal drained me like five years normally do, it was only because of the pressure from the Israeli media.”
Twenty-four teams will qualify for the next European Championships [up from the previous 16]. Is it safe to say Israel will be among them?
“We seem to always finish third in our qualification group, which would guarantee us a place in the playoffs. We could be drawn against a strong team or a weak one. Our chances are better in the next campaign, but we could still draw strong opposition in the qualifying group. In any case, we’ll have to come with a different approach – that we’re going to qualify for the finals. We’ll aim to qualify.”