By Nicole Reisinger
For the Mitzpeh
The Israeli national football team is in the midst of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. It’s a formidable task, considering the team has not qualified for the tournament in almost half a century.
Elisha Levy, the head coach who replaced Eli Guttman last April, has the responsibility of leading the team to Russia.
“I’m very proud to be the Israeli national team coach. I see this job as a mission. I will do anything and everything that I can to succeed,” he told Jewish News. “I have plenty of experience as a coach, and I will take this challenge and pressure to improve myself and the players.”
Levy is an ex-captain of Maccabi Haifa and was the coach of numerous clubs where he won two domestic titles in 2009 and 2011.
The team is grouped with Spain, Albania, Macedonia and Liechtenstein for the first round of qualifiers, and only the winners from the nine European groups are guaranteed a place in Russia. The eight best runner-ups qualify for a playoff where they are paired into four home- and away-style games.
“I remember seeing the draw and sort of groaning, ‘this again,’ because our group for EURO 2016 was also really brutal, with Belgium, Wales and Bosnia,” said M. Jonathan Greenberg, a junior finance and international business major. “[Italy and Spain] are some of the best teams in the world, and a good result for Israel would be to not be embarrassed.”
Israel currently sits in third place behind Spain and Italy, with five games left in the qualifying series.
“Although it’s a very difficult group, the aim is to be competitive, achieve as many points as we can and win the support of our fans,” Levy told Jewish News.
“It’s quite unlikely Israel qualifies… it’s currently off second place by four points, so the team would do well to even advance to the playoffs, let alone progress from there,” said junior journalism major Jon Orbach.
Due to the state’s tumultuous history, the national team belonged to four different geographical zones during its World Cup qualifying campaigns. The team has not qualified for the tournament since 1970, when it was hosted by Mexico, when Israel was a member of the Asian Football Confederation. They failed to progress past the group stage, but still demonstrated that Israel was a force to be reckoned with.
“It’d be a huge milestone for a team that really got screwed over by having to play in Europe because of some Asian countries’ refusal to play against it,” said Orbach. “If Israel were classified as an Asian country, like it is politically, I guarantee it’d make most tournaments.”
The closest the team has gotten to competing in the World Cup since 1970 was in 2006, when Israel went undefeated in the qualifiers, but was not able to garner enough points to surpass France and Switzerland.
The Israeli national team is regarded as a dangerous yet unpredictable opponent, having an inconsistent record of beating formidable opponents while falling to less competitive teams.
“Very classically, they will find a way to lose a game they should not. So unless they can sneak a result against Italy or Spain, it is very unlikely we will progress,” said Greenberg.
After beating Albania 3-0 under a terror threat last November, suffering a major 4-1 loss to Spain in March, and subsequently having two teammates suspended, the national team is at no loss for hardships.
Greenberg, who studied abroad at the University of Haifa, believes that if Israel were to qualify for the World Cup, it “would be huge … considering how integral the sport is to the culture of the country… the team features players from around the entire country, of different races, religions and ethnicities. It would mean a lot to have a team go out under the Jewish star, but truly represent so much more.”