"...misguided locals grapple with the delusion that they can qualify for the World Cup". The Fiver, Thursday 24 March 2005 - Guardian Unlimited's tea-time take on the world of football
"...if we were trailingLiechtenstein in the last minute and scored an equaliser, I'd be happy." Avraham Grant, Israel manager - also quoted by The Fiver. We take it that he's happy then.
"After controlling much of the game and taking an early lead. Ireland fell back, conceding an injury-time equaliser that Israel deserved." The Guardian, Sunday March 27th.
Very few people are giving Israel must hope of making it to the World Cup Finals in 2006. Despite performing well so far, they are in a group with two teams, France and Ireland that any pundit would pick to top the group. So far however, it has been honours even, Israel battling to creditable draws with France in Paris and did the same last night with a morale boosting late equalizer against Ireland in Ramat Gan.
Football is an unpredictable game; a betting man would certainly put money on France to return from Israel with 3 points in the bag, but he might hesitate, having lost his money last night as the unfancied Swiss held France to a draw; a result which leaves Israel, Ireland and France in a 3 way tie at the top of group 4. All it takes is for a couple of results to go in Israel's favour and we could be looking forward to our first World Cup outing since 1970; the only time that Israel has made it to the finals so far.
The World Cup is almost unquestionably the most important sports competition in the world. Football is the world's most popular game and the World Cup brings together the best national sides every 4 years to compete for a prize which, since the inaugural 1930 tournament has been shared amongst 7 nations (hope I haven't forgotten anyone!) The World Cup Final attracts a larger audience than any other sporting event - only the Olympics can make any claim to be as important.
Israel now has players with big game experience; Yossi Benayoun and Dudu Aouat both play in Spain; Tal Ben Haim in England. Others have played overseas and most now have had extended runs in European competitions, either for Maccabi Haifa Haifa or Hapoel Tel Aviv. They are experienced and are not intimidated by the Beckhams, Zidanes and Rauls of this world.
The team certainly has the ability to qualify for the World Cup - if it keeps playing as well and as obstinately as it did last night, all it needs is a little bit of luck - the same as France and Ireland do.