יִשְׂרָאֵל / Israel
- Capital: Jerusalem / ירושלים
- Official Languages: Hebrew
- Recognised National Languages: Arabic
- Nicknames: הכחולים-לבנים (The Blue and Whites)
- Association: Israel Football Association (IFA) / ההתאחדות לכדורגל בישראל
- FIFA Code: ISR
- Best World Cup Result (Men): Group Stage (1970)
- Best World Cup Result (Women): Not Qualified
- Best Euros Result (Men): Not Qualified
- Best Euros Result (Women): Not Qualified
- Best Asian Cup Result (Men): WINNERS (1964)
- Highest FIFA Ranking (Men): 15th (November 2008)
- Highest FIFA Ranking (Women): 53rd (March 2017)
- Lowest FIFA Ranking (Men): 99th (January 2018)
- Lowest FIFA Ranking (Women): 72nd (August 2003)
- Most Capped Player: Yossi Benayoun – 101 caps
- Top Scorer: Motale Shpigler – 33 goals
The State of Israel (מְדִינַת יִשְׂרָאֵל / Medinat Yisra’el) is a country situated in Western Asia, within the region defined as the ‘Middle East’, on the southeastern shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea. Israel is bordered by a number of countries within the region, with Lebanon to the north, Syria to the northeast, Jordan to the east, Palestine to the east and west, and Egypt to the southwest. The country gained its independence from the British Empire in 1948, although it has been part of FIFA since 1929 as the Palestine/Eretz Israel FA whilst they were still the Mandatory Palestine.
Due to their geographical position, they joined the AFC as one of its founding members in 1954 and played in the first four editions of the Asian Cup. They finished as runners-up to the initial winners, South Korea in 1956 and repeated the feat four years later. Finally in the 1964 edition, which they subsequently hosted, they managed to win their first major tournament by finishing top of the four-team group, and winning all three games against India, the defending champions South Korea, and Hong Kong, to lift the continental trophy. A third place finish occurred in the 1968 edition of the tournament, whilst the country appeared in its very first World Cup in 1970 by beating Australia 2-1 on aggregate to be the only AFC member to qualify for that year’s tournament. Placed within a tough group with Italy, Uruguay and Sweden, they managed a goalless draw against Italy and a 1-1 draw with Sweden but were unable to progress to the knockout stage as they finished bottom of their group. Nonetheless, it was an impressive showing from the Israelis.
Unfortunately Israel’s position within the AFC was becoming more tempestuous, and in 1974 the confederation adopted a vote to exclude Israel from all AFC competitions and from the organisation itself. This led to nearly 20 years of exile with Israel being no official member of any continental organisation. They did compete within UEFA’s qualification rounds for the 1982 World Cup, and then competed within the OFC’s qualifying rounds for the 1986 and 1990 World Cup, even making it to the CONMEBOL-OFC intercontinental playoff against Colombia with the winner qualifying for Italia ‘90. Alas the Israelis lost the two legged playoff by just a single goal in the first leg in Colombia.
Thankfully Israel’s footballing exile was ended in the early 1990s when they became a full member of UEFA in 1994, although their clubs had already been competing within European club competitions from the start of the 90s. Since being part of the European establishment, they have yet to qualify for any European Championships nor another World Cup via the UEFA sphere of qualifying. They came very close to qualifying for Euro 2000 when they reached the playoff round after finishing as runners-up in their group, but lost 0-8 on aggregate to Denmark. They also missed out on qualifying for a playoff for the 2006 World Cup on goal difference, whilst failing to qualify for Euro 2008 by just a single point. Sadly, they shall not be competing within the upcoming European Championship either after losing to Scotland in the UEFA Nations League Path C playoff route, losing 3-5 on penalties in the semi-finals after a goalless draw. However despite that, they are still considered a second-tier nation within European football after securing their spot within League B for the next edition of the Nations League, and will be looking to qualify for the 2022 World Cup from a close-looking group containing Denmark, Austria, Scotland, Faroe Islands and Moldova.
Talking about a country who had previously competed within the AFC, hosted and won the 1964 Asian Cup, and qualified for the 1970 World Cup as the only Asian qualifier, but have since become one of the more talented sides within the UEFA confederation, we interviewed the excellent Uri Levy from the football website BabaGol. Uri is a football journalist and commentator, as well as being the founder and editor-in-chief of the superb and informative website BabaGol, which covers all the football stories from the Middle East, the remainder of Asia, Latin America, Africa, and more. To find Uri’s social media accounts, and the BabaGol website and social media accounts, follow the links below:
- Uri’s Twitter: @Levyninho
- BabaGol Twitter: @BabaGol_
- BabaGol Website: https://www.babagol.net/
- BabaGol Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/babagol.net/
- BabaGol YouTube: BabaGol Channel
- BabaGol Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/babagol_/
Q. Who would you say is your country’s best player and coach/manager of all-time, and the reasonings behind the choices?
It’s a tough question. We have this debate all the time. It is basically a generational discussion. The old fans will talk about Motale Shpigler, who scored our only World Cup goal in 1970 and played in France and for the New York Cosmos; the ’80s-’90s guys will argue between Eyal Berkovic, a real midfield magician, and Haim Revivo, a legend in Celta Vigo and Fenerbahçe; the 2000’s guys will go behind Yossi Benayoun who’s starred in La Liga and the English Premier League and was a leader in the national team, and the kids now days talk about the Israeli goal-machine Eran Zahavi.
I go with Yossi Benayoun, who starred in Israel for Hapoel Be’er Sheva and Maccabi Haifa, climbed his way up in Europe with Racing Santander in Spain, and then West Ham United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal in the English Premier League. He was the indisputable leader of the national team, the most capped player (101 caps) at his peak, and produced magical moments for us as a football-crazy nation.
As a coach, there were a few significant ones, but I go with Emmanuel Scheffer. Why? He was the only coach that guided us to a big tournament – the 1970 World Cup. At the end of the day, this is what we look for.
Q. Who could be regarded as a ‘cult hero’ in terms of the national team both in the past and present?
Motale Shpigler and Giyora Shpigel, “The Two Shins“, as we call them, were a cult pair throughout our football history. Later on, Eli Ohana, who was a charismatic figure and scored a famous goal against Australia in the 1990 World Cup qualifiers, Alon Mizrahi, who was a striker that celebrated with an aeroplane movement and once said, “I have nothing to prove, and I proved it today on the field” was definitely a cult-moments creator. Nowadays, we have Eran Zahavi. He was the team captain, but when the crowd booed him, he threw the captain’s armband and left the national team for a while until he came back and became the co-top scorer of the national team history. Besides, our current captain, Bibars Natcho, is one of the biggest prides Israeli football has – a modest, silent leader, a Muslim as well (the first Muslim captain of the national team), who made a fantastic career in Europe and is loved by many.
Q. Of the current team, who would you say is the best player from Israel currently?
Eran Zahavi is the best player in the team, but not necessarily by technical ability or so – he simply shines in important moments, and scores when he wants; the rest of the team is totally depended on him when it comes to goals. After him, we have Munas Dabbur, Hoffenheim striker, who never really shined in the national team, and Manor Solomon – Shakhtar Donetsk’s star that basically forms our future in one man. Lethal, accurate and talented forward that scored against Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League this season twice. We love him and expect him to reach the top of the European game.
Q. How would you describe the current state/performance of the national team?
It’s a tough one that I can basically write a book to answer, but if I need to keep it short: We are in the heart of a different and exciting era in the national team with a lot of Austrian influence – Willi Ruttensteiner as the coach, and before Andy Herzog. We changed our style to a more attacking style of play, but we lack some tactical knowledge, and we are inconsistent after big wins. The change that Ruttensteiner brought, first with Herzog as a coach and himself as a technical director, and later with him on the sidelines, is evident and imminent. People are more supportive and feel attached to the team after years of cynical football and a complete distance between the team and fans.
Q. Are there any Israeli players who you think we should be focusing on for the future – who would you say is the most exciting up & coming talent from the country?
Two words: Manor Solomon.
I wrote a bit about him previously but just go to YouTube for more information. He is a fantastic player.
Q. Looking at Israel’s international history, what would you say has been the best game, result or performance for the national team in your opinion?
We have three mythical games in our history:
- The 1-1 draw with Sweden in 1970 Mexico World Cup.
- A 2-3 victory in the Parc des Princes against France after coming from behind in an ecstatic and inspiring performance in 1994.
- A 5-0 thrashing of Austria in 1999 was the best ever game of the national team. It was this kind of days that everything ticked. I have chills just writing on it. What a match! Berkovic, Revivo, Mizrachi and Najwan Grayeb simply danced and produced one very proud and happy moment at peak years in football popularity in Israel.
We won the 1964 Asian Cup before we were expelled from competing in Asia and had some great games against Iran back in the early ’70s, but the previous three examples are our best performances probably.
Q. Likewise, is there a performance or result which is regarded as the team’s lowest point?
There were so many frustrating losses I cannot count, really. A 0-4 home loss to Russia in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, a 2-2 draw with Malta in the Euro 2004 qualifiers, and maybe the biggest shame was a 0-5 home loss to Denmark in the Euro 2000 qualification playoffs, that after the match it was revealed that the players hanged out with prostitutes the night before the match. This was a breaking point with the fans that not everyone can fully connect and attach to the team until today.
Q. What are the best and worst things about being a fan of the Israeli national team?
Since I am a journalist, it’s a bit hard to answer, as I watch them differently nowadays. But I can say from the past: The best moments are those nights that everything connects, and it’s perfect and so rare and takes place only once in a decade or in a few years or so, and the worst – everything that comes in between those beautiful nights.
Q. Have the fans adopted some kind of unofficial anthem to sing along to before/during/after matches?
Yeah. It’s kind of sad but definitely perplexing our reality in the early 2000s. The national team’s most common song is “Israel Milchama, Israel Milchama” – “Israel War, Israel War“. It’s impressive when you hear it in the stadium, and it is a sold-out ground and all, but regarding our life here – it’s also kind of f****d up.
Q. Do you have a favourite or iconic shirt from the whole time of the national team?
Yes. The 1974 long-sleeve shirts from Adidas. Clean, classic, but at the same time stylistic (the numbers’ font are out of this world).
Q. Finally, what are your hopes for the future of the Israeli national team?
What do you mean? After victories, we are among the best in Europe. After losses, we won’t even make it in Asia. Our dream is always the next big tournament. Personally, I think it will be fantastic if Israel will manage to qualify for Qatar 2022. Football-wise, the reasons are obvious, but also in terms of our life here in the region.
We really want to connect and be an integral part of the Middle East, and football is a fantastic way of doing it. It will encourage some bad blood responses at first I believe, but later on – it’s football. We must make it to Qatar. If we don’t make it for a World Cup in the Middle East, we’ll never make it.
A massive תודה רבה to Uri from Babagol for answering our questions on the Blue & Whites. Remember you can find their excellent social media accounts and website in the links at the top of the blogpage.
If you have any comments, suggestions, reactions, or even your own answers to the above questions, please write them in the comments box below. Likewise, you can either email us at email@example.com or send a message at @The94thMin on Twitter.