Israel keeps dream alive at U20 World Cup with Round of 16 win over Uzbekistan

May 31, 2023 | Holyland Hoops

It’s quite incredible to think that the Israel National Team is just three wins away from making history at the Under-20 World Cup. While it’s still quite a ways away and a dream that the blue-and-white could take home an international soccer title, the fact that Head Coach Ofir Haim’s team is in the position to do so is quite an accomplishment in itself.

After defeating the Asian Champion Uzbekistan 1-0 in the Round of 16 thanks to Anan Khalaili’s goal deep into second half stoppage time, Israel is off to the quarterfinals this coming Saturday evening where they would be scheduled to play the winner of the Brazil and Tunisia in a game that will take place on Wednesday night.

While there is no question that the typical person on the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or Haifa had never even given this tournament a thought prior to the sensational play that the young Israelis are providing, they are all now tuning in to see just how much pride and how far this team can go.

Photo Credit: IFA

Haim’s squad has done what many a politician across the Holy Land has never been able to do; unite all facets and faces of the people who live, work and breathe in and around Israel all the way up to Nahariya and Kiryat Shemona to Sakhnin, Jerusalem and all the way down to Eilat.

But it’s not just the people of Israel who are “shepping nachas”. It’s also the Argentinian Jews who have accompanied the team around the vast South American country after FIFA stripped Indonesia of the competition for not allowing Israel to enter, as well as Jews around the globe and other who are learning very quickly that Israeli soccer or football as the world calls it can provide some thrills and chills.

And that is what everyone saw on Tuesday night in Mendoza and very early in the morning on Wednesday in Israel.

Israel dominated Uzbekistan but the Asian champs would not concede as chance after chance was created by Haim’s team especially in the second half. As time wound down and into injury time, the blue-and-white kept pushing for a winner in order to avoid having to go to a thirty minute extra-time period and then perhaps penalty kicks to determine the winner.

However, that was not going to be the case when captain Ilay Madmon lined up to take a free kick in the 97th minute. The Beer Sheva product sent the ball directly into the box as the Anan Khalaili stabbed the ball past the Uzbek keeper to send the Israeli squad and its supporters throughout the stadium into euphoria.

Photo Credit: IFA

The Maccabi Haifa winger has not been on the tips of the tongues of many who have been involved with the team, but Khalaili was in the right place at the right time and did what he was trained to do, score.

How many times have we seen the Israel National Teams not find the back of the goal in crunch time? How many times has an opportunity that could win the game for the blue-and-white go by the wayside and how many times have we seen Israel get so close but yet so far?

The Sakhnin native put that all to rest with a goal that will go down in the annals of Israeli soccer history.

Ironically, Khalaili had entered the game in the 55th minute coming on for last game’s hero Omer Senior who scored the decisive goal against Japan to send Israel into the Round of 16.

Khalaili ‘s father had once been a goalkeeper in the lower leagues of Israeli soccer and helped train his son in order tp put him in the position where he scored five goals this past season with Haifa’s youth team while also having been in the starting lineup for the national team’s three games last November.

Photo Credit: IFA

There had been some interest from well known European clubs for the 18-year old’s services and that ratcheted right up following the game when immediate reports came out that Polish outfit Legia Warsaw and Austrian side Rapid Wien were keen on having Khalaili as part of their squads. However, the striker, who is signed with Maccabi Haifa through 2026 perhaps will have a chance to crack the first team lineup with his youth coach Messay Dego now taking over the reins for the big club.

With the final whistle being blown, the celebrations kicked off as fans flew Israeli flags in almost every inch of the stadium, the players leapt on one another and ran around the track in pure unadulterated joy.

There were no politics to be found between Arab and Jew. Khalaili with his goal had united people and also a nation that has been thirsting for someone to do just that.

“This is a very exciting moment and I have goosebumps all over my body,” a boisterous Khalaili said. “I want to thank the entire nation of Israel who are supporting us and who were up until past 2am in the morning. I just knew that this was going to be my day, I had a good feeling, I just knew it. We are winners, a group of men and I am so proud of everyone here.”

Head coach Ofir Haim also spoke about the victory, “I set a goal for our team and I am so proud of the guys, this was a very tough game. This was like a Cup final and a game like that is very dangerous. We didn’t play well enough and intelligently enough, but we showed a tremendous amount of character, toughness all the way to the final seconds. We believed that we could win, we were the better team and we deserved to be victorious.”

“Everything in life is difficult,” continued the bench boss. “But that is what makes it so much sweeter. I hoped that the journey would be a bit easier, but it looks like this is what God’s plan was for me. We have an incredible national team and we are very united which is what I believe wholeheartedly. We now have to make sure that we don’t think that we aren’t the underdog and stay modest.”

Congratulations poured in from every corner of the world, whether it was the Official FIFA Website, Colombian television or local Argentinian media.

Israeli soccer has made its mark.

Up next will be either world footballing powerhouse Brazil or Tunisia. The South American side will be heavy favorites to punch their ticket to the quarterfinal and a date with Israel, but one never knows what may be in the game of soccer.

Photo Credit: IFA

Should Tunisia shock Brazil, there are already reports that the North African nation who do not have relations with Israel will boycott the game which would not only send the blue-and-white straight into the semifinals, but also would punch Israel’s ticket to the 2024 Olympic Games.

Obviously, Haim doesn’t want to get to far ahead of himself and knows that there is a still a long road ahead, “Whoever we get, great. We have a rest day coming up and then we will prepare ourselves properly as we want to get to the semifinals. We will do everything in our power to make everyone happy!”

“Can we make it past the quarterfinals? Brazil? Anything is possible,” a jubilant Khalaili said. “We know that we can do it and we are as good as any other national team and we have proven that.”

Sign up for our newsletter


You may also like…


Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!