Tuesday, 12 October 2010

A Greek Tragedy in the making or not ?

I was in the bakery section of the supermarket the other day, when to my surprise I saw that they were selling the roundish lump of dough with a dollop of sweet red gunk in the middle otherwise known as the ubiquitous jam/jelly doughnut. As you are reading this, I know that you are beginning to wonder what this has got to do with a game of football, apart from both objects being round. Who can guess the connection, well the doughnut is symbolic of the festival of lights, Chaunkah, which is a celebration of the last time that Israel beat the Greeks, and lo and behold, Israel just happen to be facing Greece tonight in a vital European qualifier.

So the question is, can Israel overcome one of their oldest foes again after over 2,000 years of trying? the omens don’t look good. Before I carry on, I know that all the Maccabi Tel-Aviv basketball fans who are reading this are going to say that Maccabi often beat Greek teams at Chanukah time, sorry guys, that does not count. I doubt that many of the players for Maccabi would qualify as members of the tribe.

I am sure that many of you good readers have head of the term a Greek tragedy, but are not quite sure what it means, so I went to Bet Shemesh’s eminent Greek Scholar, Dr Lisa Maurice and asked her for a quick definition. I told her I wanted 3 lines not the 3 days that she said would be needed to explain the concept, but she came through and here roughly is what she said. A play were the cast think that the they are good and things are going to work out, but in the end their hopes prove futile and they are shown not to be up too standard.

Sounds familiar, yes we could be talking about, the Israel national football team. The defeat to Croatia on Saturday night was very disappointing as the Croatians did not play well at all, and better execution of the chances that fell Israel’s way early on, would probably have given Israel a win. Therein lies the hope, Israel did create chances and good ones and Schechter’s goal was very well taken. Israel also tends to play better away from home, perhaps because there is less pressure on them.
If they were not expected to win against Croatia, then they are certainly expected to lose tonight. As I said in the last blog, in the absence of Yossi Benayoun, who is now expected to be out for 6 months with injury, somebody has to take the responsibility of pushing the team forward. Schecther, did his bit, but Gilly Vermouth was very disappointing, he has to play well for Israel to have a chance. Perhaps Fernandez will give Lior Rafelov a chance as he did well when he came on as a substitute.

This leads us to the manager, Louis Fernandez, who is a very unpopular figure in the Israeli press and this is not just because he is French, although that is just cause for me. The claim is that he has not brought any order to the team, there is no structure, some of these criticisms are justified, but the players have to take a lot of the blame and the press most for overstating the level of Israeli football. One thing is for sure, it is fun to watch Fernandez (I think the Israeli FA thought he was Spanish, because of his name, and the Spanish are world champs and European Champs at the moment) striding up and down his technical error, sucking on his lollipops and throwing his arms about in those classic Gallic shrugs.
A quick word about the Greeks, they are not that good, but always seem to do well against Israel. The crowd in Athens will be very hostile, the Greek number 7 Samaras, likes scoring against Israel. As the table stands, Greece and Georgia have 5 points and Israel 4, so there is still all too play for.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Israel V Croatia a preview

Hello, and welcome back, after lots of pressure from you the readers, I am back to help you follow Israel’s progress through the qualification tournament for the 2012 European championships (aka Euro 2012) set to be hosted by Poland and Ukraine in June of that year.
Before previewing the game, a brief explanation is needed with those not so au fait with qualifying for major tournaments. The 50 or so odd countries that are part of the European football federation (you will be stretched if you know your geography to say that all of these countries are actually in Europe, Israel being a case in point) have been divided up into nine groups of either five or six teams. The winners of each group automatically qualify. The 2nd placed team with the best record from amongst the nine groups also gets in. The remaining eight 2nd placed teams then play off next November to see which four teams round out the competition. Add in the host nations and we are left with 16 teams to compete in Euro 2012 .

Israel was drawn in group F, to play Croatia, Greece, Latvia, Georgia and Malta, and was seeded third in this group. So far Israel has beaten Malta at home and drawn away in Georgia.

So to the game itself, now I am going to write something, and you are going to think, well that is obvious, and that is, any other result other than a defeat will be a good one for Israel. Israel is expected to lose this game, as I mentioned earlier, they are the number three seed in the group and Croatia is number one. In one of the local newspapers they did a comparison of the probable opening 11 players on each side and the Croatian team was valued at 200 million Euro with Israel at 40 million Euro. Hopefully that gap in value, 5 times more will not translate into a similar result on the field.
However as the cliché goes “football is a funny old game”. Croatia have started their qualifying campaign with a 3-0 away victory over Latvia and a 0-0 draw against Greece, they were poor in failing to qualify for the World Cup and their form has tapered off since the glory days soon after the breakup of the old Yugoslavia . The last times these two nations met in Ramat Gan, the Croatians won 4-3 in a seven goal thriller, so as far as entertainment goes the omens are good.

The bad news for Israel is their best player is out injured. Yossi Benayoun will be missing for a couple of months with an Achilles injury, can Israel manage without him, are the next generation ready for the step up? Before we try to answer those questions, I must say a word about Yossi. He is obviously a mutant, as we know he comes from Dimona, where that secret installation that we are not allowed to talk about is located, just ask Mordechai Vanunu what happens when you do. The fact that he is so talented is not where the mutation manifests itself, no, the mutation is that he is so modest with it. Israeli football is awash with ex players whose mouths were bigger than their feet, so that they constantly were putting their feet in their mouths about how brilliant they were, instead of letting their feet do the talking on the pitch. The most classic case of this was Eyal Berkovitz, when he was at West Ham, one of his teammates tried to kick his head off, he was so disliked.

Yossi was desperate to get fit for this game, he even went to Belgrade to see the “The Serbian Witch” who uses a compound made from the placenta of horses to speed up the recovery. Of course it didn’t work, but I don’t think she charged him as the Serbs hate the Croats.

Back to the questions, there is no doubt that a new generation of skillful Israeli players are around, the question is do they have the mentality to succeed at his level. I will be bold and say the answer is yes, this does not mean that Israel will win, but that they should give a good account of themselves, despite all the negative vibes emanating from the Israeli press.
Itai Schechter is a case in point, he is a very fast, strong and skillful player who is making a name for himself in the Champions league for Hapoel Tel-Aviv, if the midfield and especially Gili Vermouth, (if he plays well, Israel has a chance) can provide him with good service, he will certainly cause the Croatians problems. Itai comes from a religious family, and as a teenager, had real issues with his undoubted ability and the problem of playing on the day of rest. He chose football, but still has an observant outlook on life. He caused a controversy whilst playing for Hapoel, when after scoring a goal against Salzburg, he pulled a Kippah out of his sock, put it on and prayed in the middle of the pitch. The Austrian crowd booed loudly and the referee showed him a yellow card.

On Sunday or Monday I will preview the Greece V Israel game and also talk about Israel’s rather eccentric manager Louis Fernandez.