Israeli football (soccer) is going through quite the purple patch.
Last year, Israel finished second at the U-19 European Championships. By virtue of this, it qualified for this year’s U-20 World Cup, where it famously defeated Brazil on its way to taking the bronze medal.
The U-21 European Championships are happening as we speak. Israel will take on England in the semifinals on Wednesday night.
With Olympic spots given to the top three and England ineligible for one as it competes in the Olympics as Great Britain, Israel has now qualified for the men’s football competition at the Olympics for the first time since 1976.
To say it’s been a remarkable summer for Israeli football is a massive understatement. It’s been unimaginable. Just when you think they can’t surpass expectations, they keep raising the bar even higher.
This has been so exciting for Israelis because soccer is their number one sport and they’ve been starved from seeing their national teams compete on the international stage, let alone do well.
So it was thrilling beyond belief for Israel to play Brazil at the U-20 World Cup, and when Israel was victorious, the joy was palpable.
It’s a foreign feeling to experience tiny little Israel taking it up to the world’s and Europe’s best and getting the better of them.
This year’s victory is particularly sweet because when Israel’s soccer squad qualified previously for the Olympics (1968 and 1976) and the 1970 World Cup, it was as a member of the Asian Football Confederation where the level of competition isn’t as high as it is in Europe.
Israel was kicked out of the AFC, which is how it found its way to Europe. It’s a weird geopolitical situation given that every country around it competes in Asia, but what can you do?
So for Israel to even qualify for any of these youth Euro tournaments is a massive achievement. Countries like Serbia, Denmark, Sweden and Poland didn’t even manage to qualify for the U-21 tournament.
Once there, you have to play incredibly well to get out of your group. In the few previous instances where Israel qualified for these youth tournaments the team barely won a game, let alone advanced to the knockout stages.
At both the 2023 U-20 World Cup and U-21 European Championships, Israel had to win its final group game (against Japan and Czech Republic, respectively) to advance, which it did both times and both times with a late goal.
Then you’re in the sudden-death phase of the tournament where the luck of the draw and things such as penalty shootouts mean anything can happen.
At the U-21 European Championships, Georgia may have looked like a great quarterfinal match-up on paper, but it was the host and thus the stadium was packed with Georgian fans. This incredibly intense atmosphere was raised a few notches more for the penalty shootout.
The big question: What does this success mean for the national teams? Will this infusion of talented youth move up to the men’s side? The men’s team has never qualified for a European Championship and hasn’t qualified for a World Cup since it moved to Europe.
Youth to men
The seeds of success are already in place for the national side. In the UEFA Nations League, Israel won its group in League B, which means they’re promoted to League A. Its job here was immensely easier because Russia was disqualified from the group, but you can only beat who’s in front of you.
Because of this, Israel is assured of a least a playoff spot for Euro 2024. Four teams will be split into two semifinals and the two winners will play off for the coveted berth.
Then there is the question of the next World Cup, in 2026. Qualifiers are scheduled from March 2025 to March 2026.
By then we could really reap the fruits of all this amazing success at a youth level. Due to their success on these big stages, many of the players could be signed by teams in England, Spain, Germany, France, Italy and the like.
If they can start and get regular minutes, this is the best education for a young footballer. Then when World Cup qualifying comes around, they can match it with the best both physically and with their football IQ.
The best thing about these teams is that they’ve been fearless – they’ve gone out to win as opposed not to lose.
As to whether or not this success at a youth level is sustainable, that’s more difficult to answer.
Often the breakthrough is due to a golden generation who come together at the right time and the next cohort of underage players isn’t as good or as lucky, or both.
One of the hazards of this purple patch is how simple the players have made their incredible achievements appear when in fact they are really difficult. They’ve set an almost impossibly high standard for future generations to get close to matching.