Football: Israel's quiet awakening

The established order of Europe are aware of an emerging force.
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WHEN Avi Cohen signed for Liverpool back in 1979, the Israeli full-back was regarded as a curious one-off, a pre-Bosman export from a country with little success in international football and, like its people during much of their history, no regional identity.

How times have changed. In the space of a generation, a once homeless footballing nation that was shunted around from Asia to Oceania, has bedded down with its European family to produce a side threatening the established order in the race for Euro 2000.

More than 42,000 fans poured into the Ramat Gan stadium in Tel Aviv on Wednesday to see whether Israel, with four points already in the bag, could topple Spain and remain at the top of Group Six. Despite taking the lead with a goal set up by their most famous present export, West Ham's Eyal Berkovic, and finished off by another English- based player, Watford's Alon Hazan, Israel lost 2-1, blighted by two lapses in concentration which rendered worthless an hour of domination. The mood of euphoria that followed the 5-0 win in San Marino four days earlier was replaced by one of sombre head-shaking. But Israel, who have risen to 40th in the Fifa world rankings, are still in the hunt, second behind Austria.

Perhaps even more surprising is Israel's success at club level, where attendances rarely rise above 5,000. This Thursday, Maccabi Haifa play Austria's FV Ried in the European Cup- Winners' Cup, having caused the biggest upset so far by eliminating Paris St Germain. Beitar Jerusalem, meanwhile, gave Rangers one or two nasty scares before being knocked out of the Uefa Cup.

Cohen, who spent five years at Liverpool and a season at Rangers, says the transformation in Israel has been gradual rather than sudden. "It has taken a generation for us to become truly professional," said Cohen who won 63 caps for his country and now runs an Israeli second division club.

"Although we qualified for the 1970 World Cup, being integrated into Europe helped us enormously because it gave us the opportunity to play against the best. When your national team is thriving, your clubs tend to thrive as well. But it has taken us years to develop this mentality."

Unlike in Cohen's day, Israeli exports are now numerous. Ronny Rosenthal started the trend and in addition to Berkovic and Hazan, there is Haim Revivo, who plays for Spain's Celta Vigo - Aston Villa's opponents in the Uefa Cup on Tuesday - and Tal Benin, at present injured, of Brescia in Italy's Serie B.

"We probably have our best crop of young players for 50 years, both technically and physically," said Schlomo Sharf, the Israeli national coach who has been in the job for six years. "Berkovic is crucial to us. He is the violin that dictates the rest of the orchestra. The Spanish loss was disappointing but this is a league and the fact that we got off to such a good start is important."

Israel's best victories invariably have come either in friendlies (Argentina, Romania, Poland twice and Turkey) or when they are playing merely for pride, the chance of qualification having long gone. The most famous example was in 1993 when a 3-2 upset at the Parc des Princes severely dented France's hopes of qualifying for USA 94, although the game was meaningless for the visitors.

Israelis, fed a weekly feast of televised overseas games, particularly from the English Premiership, are quietly optimistic that their own footballers can at last take centre-stage two summers hence. Consistency is the problem. Glorious victories have too often been followed by depressing defeats. Israel's most recent footballing skirmish may have been lost but the battle can still be won.