The Israel National Team won’t have an easy path in order to punch their ticket to the 2024 European Championships as they begin a stretch of four matches in 9 days on Sunday when the blue-and-white head to Kosovo. Head coach Alon Hazan’s squad of 31 players will be returning to action after having had two of their qualification games postponed from October due to the atrocities committed by Hamas against the State of Israel and the subsequent war that is being waged in Gaza.
Israel is currently in third place with 11 points in Group I behind Romania and Switzerland with 16 and 15 points respectively and will need their entire roster with so many games in very few days. Following Sunday’s contest at Kosovo, Israel will then host Switzerland on Wednesday and Romania on Saturday in Felcsut, Hungary with the final game taking place on Tuesday November 21st at Andorra.
Just ahead of the challenging journey ahead, the Israel Football Association Chairman Moshe “Shino” Zuares, Sports Director Yossi Benayoun and Head Coach Alon Hazan spoke about the upcoming games, the return of Eran Zahavi to the national team fold while also reflecting on the country’s difficult situation.
“Normally, I would not be speaking ahead of National Team games, but after October 7th normalcy ended,” Zuares began. “That day saw 1,400 people slaughtered, 240 kidnapped and being held hostage and over 3,000 people injured in a difficult event that is still unfolding. I want to offer my condolences to the families of those who were murdered and I pray that the injured recover and that the hostages are returned quickly. One of the national team doctor’s daughter has bene kidnapped and we are doing everything we can to support her and we want everyone to come back home swiftly.”
“I want to share some of what the Israel Football Association has been doing over the past little while which includes receiving the support of the President of the Hungarian Association as well as UEFA’s in order to move the games around. Without their support as well as the support of respective associations of the countries we are facing this all would not have been possible. We insisted on playing in front of our fans even though we will not be playing in our home but this will allow Israelis and Jews to come and support us. I am happy that we were able to accomplish this. We will be playing in a small stadium but I believe that it will be full. We will be trying to bring some of the families and children from the Gaza Periphery in order to give them some joy and make them feel that they are part of us.”
Hazan reflected on the horrific events that unfolded on Simchat Torah and showed appreciation for the State of Israel, “I don’t know if life stopped that day or if it just woke everyone up here in the country. I think the horrors that the country experienced from that day and event and now the war that is going on right now. I don’t think it stopped time, but set the wheels of time in motion for the State of Israel.”
“Maybe we forgot what our reality is a little bit. We are trying to find a way to have a routine during the war, but every time we try and the fact that our people are being held hostage including children, brings me back to that day and it gives me the tremendous meaning of what it is to be the State of Israel and how important it is to appreciate the country we live in.”
Benayoun also spoke about the tragedy that has occurred and the role that soccer can play for the country, “From October 7th, everything has become marginal, yet soccer is perhaps one of the only things that can bring a smile although it’s hard to say that it can make people happy. I do hope that we can bring a smile to the State of Israel. We can only pray that the hostages return home as soon as possible.
Hazan picked up on Benayoun’s comment about how everything has become marginalized since the attacks and what the national team’s role is during this time.
“Yossi said that many things have now become very marginal, we deal with football, but for many days it was difficult to find sanity because all day we were busy with what had happened and what is happening. We will do everything to give the State of Israel the feeling that it is possible to do something good with the heart and soul during this period. We had marked right from the start that advancing to the Euro was our goal, but now I don’t think that playing in the Euro will be our reward. The reward will be in succeeding in making our country happy during this difficult time, while advancing to the Euros will be secondary to that.”
The bench boss knows that he can’t look too far ahead in preparing for such a jam packed schedule and will need to take it game by game while also appreciating the players who have all come to play for the blue-and-white during the country’s time of need.
“I know you are looking at this stretch of games as ten days, but we are just focusing on the first game. At the moment we only have one game and that is Kosovo. They are a quality opponent and our group is very tight and competitive. We are a good team and from the beginning of this campaign we have encountered some obstacles. We have the best players in the most ideal situation that we can get them in and with that we will go out and do the best that we can.”
“I am very appreciative of the players who have come for these games and that did everything in their power to be here. Some risked their contracts and they were willing to do that. We are much more than a people, we are an entire country that is connects all of its parts. I am happy there is tremendous motivation but that alone will not be enough. On the positive side, there are people who are sacrificing themselves for the good of our country – despite the fact that some are not even Jewish.”
One of the players who put his differences aside with Benayoun after a disagreement with the National Team is Eran Zahavi who will be available for these four critical matches, “Eran can only add to the team. Everyone knows that professionally there has never been a problem and the players are also happy that he is coming back. I have no doubt that he will only give more us confidence and help us complete the goal of advancing to the Euro.”
Zuares is aware as to what is at stake for the team, but also knows they will do their utmost to achieve the goal of going to the Euros for the first time ever, “We all understand the magnitude of hour and the mission in front of us and the joy that it will bring by advancing to the Euros. I admit that during these days it’s hard to know how happy we can be, but I wish we could bring a bit of comfort to our people. I want to wish the greatest success to the players and the team and explain to all of you that we are strong and that we all have one goal, to do everything we can to get to the Euros.”