What next for Israeli football?


With Israel’s absence from the 2014 World Cup Finals now all but confirmed, many questions will be asked of both the current manager, Eli Guttman, and his squad.

This most recent failure to qualify for the most prestigious competition in international football will mark 43 years since Israel appeared in their first, and to date only World Cup Finals. But what, or who is to blame for repeat failures? With the domestic game currently enjoying a rather successful period, it begs the question as to why this is not being reproduced on an international scale.

Currently ranked 63rd in the FIFA World Rankings, the Israeli national side find themselves below nations such as: Mali, Cape Verde Islands, Albania, Venezuela, Iran and Wales. While it is possible and plausible to argue the difference in opposition faced by Israel and teams such as Mali and Cape Verde Islands, they should arguably not find themselves below nations such as Wales, who have endured a disappointing decade at international level.

Indeed only seven years ago, Israel nearly qualified for the 2006 World Cup, coming joint second in their group and only being pushed into third by an inferior goal difference.

These years of relative success were during the reigns of Avram Grant (2002-2006) and Dror Kashtan (2006-2010), both of whom enjoyed two of the best win percentages of any manager of the team. Grant won 14 of his 33 games in charge, a win percentage of 42.42%, while Kashtan albeit in a smaller number of games (winning 10 of 19), achieved an impressive percentage of 52.63 per cent. Since then there have been full time tenures for Luis Fernandez (40 per cent) and the current incumbent Guttman (31.25 per cent) during which Israel have reverted back to performing inconsistently, summed up by the recent 1-1 draw at home to Azerbaijan, which all but ended any slim hopes of qualifying for the upcoming World Cup.

The question as to whether poor performance is down to the management or the squad to choose from is a difficult one, with valid arguments for both sides. Of the squad called up for the games against Azerbaijan and Russia, 15 ply their trade in Israel, while eight play abroad in leagues in Spain, Scotland, Belgium, Russia and France. Of the sides represented abroad, perhaps the highest rated is Celtic, who Nir Biton recently signed for. But Celtic are no longer the force they once were, and the Scottish league is widely regarded as one of the least competitive in Europe.

Therefore it has to be asked whether the current batch of senior Israeli internationals are good enough, and whether they have the skill and talent to mount a serious challenge in their qualifying campaigns. Some sympathy therefore must be had for Eli Guttman. However this comes close to evaporating when looking at the set of inconsistent results achieved under his reign. Looking alone at the current qualifying campaign, Israel have achieved good results such as a 3-3 draw with Portugal, which but for an injury-time equaliser would have been a fantastic win. Yet they have also drawn home and away with Azerbaijan and were thrashed 4-0 on their own turf by Russia.

Thus it is apparent that the senior side are somewhat stuck at the moment. While they never really seem to finish any lower than third or fourth in their group, they also fail to mount serious attempts at qualifying, normally falling away with a few games to go, as they have done this time round.

The static nature of the senior side is not one shared by the under-21's who have been buoyed by recent success. Finishing third in a very tough group containing Italy, Norway and England at the Under 21 European Championships was a remarkable achievement. Doing so with a win against England and a draw against Norway amounting to four points was all the more so. But for a 92nd-minute equaliser by Norway in the opening game, Israel would have qualified from their group, and the success of their third place finish was illustrated by the scenes which greeted the final whistle of the victory over England.

The under-21's also started their qualifying campaign for the next Championships with a 7-2 win over Azerbaijan. There is a talented set of players waiting in the wings, and there is a chance that many of these may be brought in for the next qualifying campaign for the senior side, a point of encouragement for fans.

The domestic game is also heading in the right direction, enjoying a period of stability and success on a European front. According to the upcoming 2014 UEFA Coefficient Rankings, the Israeli domestic game is ranked as the 17th best in Europe, moving up two places as a result of the performance of Israeli teams in European Club competitions over the last few seasons. This places the league ahead of those in nations such as: Cyprus, Denmark, Croatia, Poland, Scotland and Sweden, all of whom are ranked higher than Israel in the international game, suggesting it may not be the players who are to blame for international weaknesses.

The result of a 17th placed position in the rankings means Israel are permitted one representative (League Champions) entering the Champions League at the second qualifying round stage, and three representatives in the Europa League (runner-up and third place in the league, together with the winner of the State Cup) also entering at the second qualifying round stage. Reigning champions Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa will represent Israel in the Europa League this season, with the former only just having missed out on Champions League football, falling to a 4-3 aggregate defeat against last year’s Europa League semi finalists Basel. The league is arguably not even performing to as high a level as it possibly could, with restrictions (five per team) placed on the amount of foreign players allowed in the league, surely limiting the calibre of the division.

Subsequently it is apparent that the domestic game and younger levels of the international set-up are progressing well. A mark of domestic success is illustrated by the growth in popularity of the club game, which is now broadcast across both Europe and America. While not quite on a dangerous slide, the senior international team is enduring a prolonged static period, and there will need to be a shakeup if they are to escape it. Whether this comes in the form of a new manager, new players, or indeed both, is for the upper echelons of the Israeli Football Association to decide.

Analysis written by David Morris

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