Israel’s players may not have given up hope of reaching the 2010 World Cup finals, but it seems that their supporters have.
Only 5,000 fans are expected to turn up in Ramat Gan tomorrow for the penultimate Group Two qualifier against Moldova, leaving 35,000 seats unfilled.
Lying fourth in the group, Israel need a miracle to clinch a top two finish. They conclude the campaign in Switzerland, the current leaders, in what could be a decisive match.
Tamir Cohen tried to remain upbeat. “We understand the disappointment of the fans. But nobody is more disappointed than the players who have brought this on ourselves. Even if the crowd doesn’t come, we are preparing for the game with the highest motivation.
“We are not thinking about the results of the other teams in the group. We are concentrating on the mission in front of us which is winning the next matches and then we will hope for good results from the other matches.
“The atmosphere in the squad is always good. The players, those who play in Israel and those who play abroad, are happy to represent their country. The feeling of togetherness is one of the key characteristics of this national team.
“We do not use any special motivational techniques. All players have full commitment to the national team, and we all know that we must win in order to finish the campaign with a smile, for us and for the fans.”
Tal Ben Haim, another member of Dror Kashtan’s 22-man squad, vowed not to give up hope. “There is a chance,” he said. “But first and foremost we must concentrate on our own games and not worry what is happening elsewhere. We should beat Moldova but then we should have beaten Latvia and look what happened. So we’ve got to concentrate 100 per cent on Moldova.”
In the build-up to the game most of the media interest focused on off-the-pitch matters. The biggest story was Ben Sahar, who threatened not to return to Israel after the IDF instructed him to report for three weeks basic training on Tuesday.
The 20-year-old Espanyol striker only agreed to come home after the army gave the IFA assurances that he would not be arrested for ignoring the order. Sahar has now reportedly agreed to perform his military duty at the end of May — an agreement based on the assumption that Israel do not reach the World Cup finals.
Israel’s starting XI against Moldova and Switzerland will include the team’s three Premier League stars — captain Yossi Benayoun, Ben Haim and Cohen, whose excellent form with Bolton continued last Saturday in the 2-2 draw against Spurs when he set up both goals.
Lokeren striker Omer Golan and Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder Gal Alberman have been dropped from the squad, while Borussia’s Roberto Colautti and Hapoel Tel Aviv striker Itay Shechter have been recalled.
Another talking point was Kashtan’s decision to leave Maccabi Haifa’s captain Yaniv Katan out of the 22-man squad. Katan is considered the best player in the Israeli League at the moment, but it is no secret that Kashtan and Katan do not get along. The reason for his non-selection remains unclear.
The issue is unlikely to have any significance as these will be Kashtan’s last two games in charge, unless Israel’s slim chances of qualifying are realised.
IFA chairman Avi Luzon has already announced that Kashtan will leave his post after the qualifying campaign is concluded.
Avram Grant has been reappointed as director of football at Premier League strugglers Portsmouth. The former Chelsea manager, 54, said: “I’m very happy to be returning to the best league in the world.”Keeper David James described it as “a very good move”. The appointment came after billionaire Saudi businessman Ali Al Faraj bought the club.