The Israel National Team gets back to business next week as the blue-and-white will take part in the UEFA Nations League which will be linked to the 2024 European Championships and a chance to qualify for the tournament through one of the three allocated places in addition to the standard qualifying competition. Israel will be in a group that consists of Albania and Iceland while the last member, Russia was banned from the competition due to the conflict with Ukraine.
The blue-and-white will turn a new page as Alon Hazan will be on the sidelines as the games get underway on Thursday June 2nd as well as for two more contests the following week in Albania and Iceland.
Hazan, who had been most recently in charge of the Israel Under-19 squad was appointed by sports director Yossi Benayoun to replace Willi Ruttenstiener and is tasked with leading the way for the blue-and-white as they look to advance to their first major tournament since 1970 when they played at the World Cup in Mexico.
The Ashdod native was an active player from 1984 through 2004 and featured prominently with Maccabi Haifa where he won a league championship and two state cups and Hapoel Petah Tikva where he captured a state cup as well before ending his playing career with his hometown team of Ashdod.
Hazan also made 72 appearances for the Israel National Team between 1990-2000 while his time in the system as a coach began in 2008 with the Under-16 squad. Hazan has been the caretaker manager on a couple of occasions for the senior team and then served under the past two head coaches Andi Herzog and Ruttensteiner from 2018-2021 before guiding the U19’s beginning in March of 2021.
As a new campaign is about to begin, Hazan reflected on his new position and the various challenges he foresees ahead.
“There is no question that this is an exciting position to be in,” Hazan began. “It also brings me back to the days when I began as a player and as a coach. To be appointed as the Israel National Team coach is not just a job for me but it is one of the proudest positions to be in. It’s being an ambassador for my country, my nation. I understand that this is a huge and important mission and I hope that I can contain my emotions as there is a lot of hard work ahead in order for us all to succeed.”
Sports Director Yossi Benayoun who has been a part of the national team for over twenty years had spoken to a myriad of potential candidates for the position including a number of coaches abroad but ultimately he felt that Hazan was the right individual to be tasked with the job.
“I found out that I was a candidate only once Yossi called me to come in for a discussion about the position. He told me that nothing was guaranteed and that I was one of a number of possible candidates that were under consideration for the job. After about a week, Oren Hasson (President of the Israel Football Association) and Yossi gave me a call and I pulled over on the side of the road in order to contain my joy, I was very happy and excited.”
Despite being a part of the Football Association for over a decade, Hazan was still surprised to be offered the opportunity of a lifetime, “I didn’t expect to be named head coach but I hoped and I believed that I would be. I have to thank so many people over the course of my career that helped put me in this situation. The mission that I have accepted will hopefully also aid me in becoming a better coach and will also make the players better as well. I am a believer that wherever one should be, they will be but we also have to do so in the most straightforward and professional manner.”
Hazan will be leaving the Under-21 team which is in the midst of the 2023 European Championship qualifying phase and he has mixed feelings about having to depart the youngsters who he just began to nurture a little over a year ago.
“I am both happy and sad at the same time as I have to leave the Under-21 National Team. It’s tough for me to now have to leave in the middle of something that I have been a part of for quite some time. But on the other hand I understood the importance of accepting the senior national team job. In a few months the younger players may also be with the seniors as we look to qualify for the next European Championship and that is not a challenge that I am afraid of.”
Israel will attempt to find a way to the promised land and return to a major tournament since the 1970 World Cup and to do so Hazan will need to find the right group of players who can help the national team weave its way through both the Nations League and Euro 2024 qualifying.
“Right now the immediate challenge is qualifying through the Nations League and not the qualification for Euro 2024 or the 2026 World Cup. I want to put together a strong national team that has a mixture of our veteran and younger players. I am not concerned about age but how good one is. The door is open to everyone and my goal is to have players want to be a part of the national team program.”
Over the past year the national team has been mired in off field controversy between the Jewish and Muslim players which began last May during the flareup with Hamas and the Gaza Strip. This unfortunately has had a negative impact on the supporters who have not filled the stadiums in recently as they look to cheer on a national team that is one unit united under the Israeli flag.
“One of my main concerns is that the fans come back and support the national team. We haven’t been able to advance to one of the big tournaments but we also knew that we would have an easier time when we had huge support in the stadiums. It’s a very important factor in our success and that can help us along the way. Jews and Arabs? Over the years I have played and worked with both and never did I distinguish any player due to their religion or otherwise. We are all humans and my hope is that everyone involved will be a part of the national team on and off of the pitch due to the soccer itself and nothing else.”
Hazan also spoke about how the players need to be all for one and one for all, together fighting for one goal.
“Each person must honor one another and I am not expecting to have to deal with the problems that we have in the country and also have to handle them on the pitch. The staff will not impede the players from having a good environment to be in. I hope that they will be a part of the national team and understand that they are representing something and that they are role models for those who may want to be in the same position. If someone will not be able to handle this we will deal with it. I have never had to deal with penalizing and punishing players for this as each person needs to know how to deal with another. This is what I want to see.”
With Hazan’s vast experience and recent time with the senior team under Willi Ruttensteiner and together with Yossi Benayoun, he feels that the foundation has been built and he can continue to grow from that point upwards and onwards.
“I along with my staff and Yossi want to bring some of our knowledge and know how to the table and that is the goal. There were also some good things that we can take away from the time when Andi Herzog and Willy Ruttensteiner were part of the national team program.”