Far from home, Israel are out of Euro 2024 and must ponder what’s next

BUDAPEST — In the end, it wasn’t even close. Israel’s attempt to qualify for Euro 2024 and a first appearance at a major tournament since the 1970 World Cup came to nothing: They lost 4-1 to Iceland in a virtually empty stadium in a quiet suburb of Budapest, surrounded by factories and a petrol station.

There was no fanfare and certainly no glamour. But for the glow of the floodlights at the Szusza Ferenc Stadium, the locals in the Ujpest district of the Hungarian capital would have had no idea that a significant international fixture was taking place on their doorstep. Only a handful more than 1,000 supporters paid to watch the game.

Out of sight and out of mind, perhaps. Israel didn’t want to be playing their home game in a neutral venue and the coach of their opponents, Age Hareide, had made it clear that he would rather not be playing Israel at all “because of what is happening in Gaza.” A small group of Iceland’s travelling supporters sat down once the Israeli anthem was played before the game, but that was the only visible protest on a night when the heavy security outside the ground reflected concerns of what might have happened.

A UEFA source told ESPN that Israel qualifying for Euro 2024 in Germany this summer would “put a completely different complexion on security arrangements” for the tournament in the wake of the war in Gaza, but after Iceland’s emphatic win, which secured them a playoff final against Ukraine in Poland next Tuesday, it is a concern that will no longer trouble the senior figures at UEFA HQ.

Israel still has a football team, though, and their players have ambitions just like those of Iceland, Ukraine and any other national side. And their ambitions to play at Euro 2024 are over.

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In different times, this Euro 2024 playoff would have been staged in Tel Aviv’s 29,400-capacity Bloomfield Stadium — a compact, noisy ground famed for being a passionate arena — but Israel has been unable to stage their home games in the country since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas and subsequent conflict in Gaza.

Earlier this month ahead of this game, Israel midfielder Oscar Gloukh took compassionate leave from his club side, Austria‘s FC Salzburg, to attend the funeral of his best friend Afik Tery, who played for Israeli Premier League team Sektzia Ness Ziona. Tery was killed March 1 while serving with the Israeli Defence Force in Khan Yunis.

After scoring in Salzburg’s 5-1 win against Hartberg last Sunday, Gloukh kissed his wrist, pointed to the sky and cried. The following day he joined his Israel teammates for the game against Iceland. A personal tragedy amid thousands of others.

Football is a triviality against that backdrop, but it goes on nonetheless and Israel desperately wanted to maintain their hopes of being at Euro 2024. But a missed penalty, a sending off and a hat trick by Iceland’s Albert Gudmundsson combined to end Israel’s Euro 2024 dreams.

“I’m sure the players are disappointed, like me,” Israel coach Alon Hazan said. “Even though we lost, they did their best. We missed a penalty to equalise, but I don’t blame my player, I only blame myself. We all need time to deal with our emotions.”

“You spoke about a topic you don’t know much about: Do you regret that? In Israel we have faced massacre, murder, rape, hostage taking. Why do you have your political bias?”

Hareide, Iceland’s 70-year-old Norwegian coach, knew to expect a rough ride at his prematch press conference in a small room at Budapest’s Szusza Ferenc Stadium, and he paused before answering the question from an Israeli journalist.

A week earlier, Hareide had said that he didn’t want Iceland to play against Israel in the Euro 2024 playoff semifinal “because of what is happening in Gaza and because of what they have done to women, children and other innocent civilians. We shouldn’t be playing this game if you ask me.”

Hareide’s comments reflect a debate within Iceland about Israel. In December, the Icelandic Association of Composers and Lyricists told its members not to participate in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest — a hugely popular pan-European singing competition which recorded viewing figures of 162 million in 2023 — unless Israel was banned from competing. (It was confirmed March 7 that Israel was clear to compete after changing the lyrics to its song choice.)

“I come from a nation with freedom of speech, a peaceful nation,” Hareide said in response to the question. “Sometimes things are taken out of translation, from English to Hebrew, but I am interested in politics, I know about the hostages. I also said free the hostages, stop the bombing.

“It is sad to play games in these situations. These are footballers, not soldiers — they have been playing around Europe for many years, I have nothing against these players. I will shake hands with them, of course, because they are footballers, but I don’t think it is fair to play in this discussion.

“We are here to play football. We play against players, not the nation of Israel.”

Ultimately, both Israel and Iceland were in Budapest to “play football.” Hareide said so, as did Israel’s coach Hazan and his captain, Eli Dasa. But for those who say that sport and politics shouldn’t mix, this fixture is a reality check.

Dasa, the first captain of Israel to be of Ethiopian-Jewish origin, is an eloquent and impressive talker. When the defender spoke to the media in November, ahead of a Euro 2024 qualifier against Switzerland in Budapest, Dasa held up a small child’s sports shoe. It was a shoe of a missing child hostage, eight-year-old Nave Shoham, taken during the Oct. 7 attacks.

“That’s all that’s left from his house,” Dasa said. “This left shoe. We wait for him here.” As the teams walked out for the game, Dasa and his teammates did so with an empty hand outstretched to signify holding the hand of a mascot. The absence of mascots was to symbolise the children taken Oct. 7.

Yet talking about football without politics is not easy, even for a man as rounded as Dasa. When asked whether he and his Israel teammates feel a “sense of brotherhood” with Ukraine, in the other half of the Path B play-off draw, Dasa (who plays his club football in Russia with Dynamo Moscow) was visibly uncomfortable.

“For me, the game against Iceland is all I think about,” Dasa said. “Nothing else.”

There was heavy security in and around the Szusza Ferenc Stadium, the 13,500-capacity home of 20-time Hungarian champion Ujpest FC, even on the day before the Euro playoff game. Security guards in hi-vis jackets stood outside the media room for both press conferences, and there was no access to the stadium without approved ID. This is the nature of life around an Israeli sports team, even in a quiet, suburban area of one of Europe’s most welcoming cities.

The attacks of Oct. 7 and subsequent Israel-Hamas conflict have increased the need for tight security, but for Hazan, the off-field situation cannot be allowed to impact what happens on the football pitch. “Last time we played, in November, it was the start of the war,” Hazan said. “We were a bit in shock, just like the whole country, but this time we are trying to avoid all the noise and only focus on football. That will improve our ability on the field.

“So I don’t care about what the Iceland coach said. I’ve read it, heard it, but I’m not interested. I just want my team to be give something for the fans in Israel.”

Budapest has become a second home for Israeli football since the Oct. 7 attacks led UEFA (European football’s confederation and ruling body) prohibiting all games, in its club and international competitions, being played in Israel. The Iceland fixture was the national team’s third successive “home” game to be played in the Hungarian capital, while club side Maccabi Haifa also staged their recent Europa Conference League home legs against Gent and Fiorentina in the city.

“Our national association has good relations with the Hungarian Football Federation and our governments are also close,” Eitan Dotan of the Israeli FA told ESPN. “Hungary and Budapest also have a large Jewish population, so our people are welcomed and feel safe here.”

When Maccabi Haifa played Gent in February, at Budapest’s Bozsik Arena, over 3,000 supporters travelled from Israel to attend the game. There were no issues on matchday and Maccabi fans felt safe enough to congregate in the city centre, singing songs and wearing their green-and-white colours. Many visited the Dohany Street Synagogue, a historic Budapest landmark also known as the Great Synagogue, before watching the game in the evening.

“We like away days, we like the away day experience,” Gillad, a Maccabi fan, told ESPN. “Of course we would prefer to be playing in Haifa because the atmosphere at our stadium is amazing — if you haven’t been, you should go — but we are happy here in Budapest.

“The people are very nice and very warm, and the police have been amazing. Budapest is no problem for us. And even though Haifa is safe, I understand that maybe foreign teams don’t want to come to Israel right now.”

Another Maccabi supporter, Gil, is less diplomatic about the need to take a 2,600-mile round trip to watch his team play a home game. “Me and my friend, we both live near the stadium in Haifa, so to have come here to watch our team is a s—ty situation,” Gil said. “Look, the situation is pretty tense, but in Israel the football stadiums are full, it’s business as usual.

“Haifa is in the north of Israel, nowhere near the problems, so yeah, we don’t see any reason why we need to play here even though Budapest is a very nice city. Politics is always involved with football, but we are not even related to Israeli politics. This is just football, and people can live together.”

Ever since contesting its first fixture in 1948, Israel’s football team has led a nomadic existence. The Israeli FA has been a full member of UEFA since 1994, but it started out as a founder member of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 1948, even hosting — and winning — the Asian Cup in 1964.

Israel was Asia’s representative at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, but in 1974 they were excluded from AFC competitions after several nations, including Kuwait and North Korea, refused to play against them. For the next 20 years, the Israeli football team attempted to qualify for World Cups through both the European and Oceania qualification routes, narrowly missing out on the 1990 World Cup after losing an intercontinental playoff against Colombia.

UEFA has now been Israel’s home confederation for 30 years, and the organisation resisted calls from 12 Middle East nations last month to suspend the country from international competitions as a result of the ongoing conflict in Gaza. UEFA’s decision to ban Russia from its competitions following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine was cited by the Middle East associations as a justification for imposing the same sanction on Israel.

“There has been no such intention from the UEFA administration,” UEFA General Secretary Theodore Theodoridis said. “These are two completely different situations of two countries.”

Despite UEFA’s position of allowing the Israeli team to continue to participate in its competitions, there are no plans for competitive fixtures to be staged in the country in the foreseeable future. “After a thorough evaluation of the current safety and security situation in the whole territory of Israel, the UEFA Executive Committee decided that no UEFA competition matches shall be played in Israel until further notice,” a UEFA spokesperson told ESPN.

From a footballing perspective, Israel are a nation on the rise. Their under-21 team reached the semifinals of Euro U21 2023 last summer, losing to eventual winners England in the last four, while the under-20 team secured a third-place finish at the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup.

But while the youngsters hint at a bright future for Israel, one that could see them end their long wait to play at a major tournament, the senior team has yet to take that final step.

In Budapest on Thursday night, Eran Zahavi’s first-half penalty gave Israel the lead and the belief that they could reach next Tuesday’s Path B final, but two Iceland goals shortly before half-time turned the game around. Coach Hazan made changes, turning to Gloukh on the substitutes’ bench and also using Liel Abada, Ramzi Safuri and Mohammad Abu Fani.

“There you have it, two Arab-Israeli Muslims,” an Israeli journalist said. “That from the nation of Apartheid? You see, the football team reflects all of our society.”

When English Premier League referee Anthony Taylor awarded Israel an 80th minute penalty — seven minutes after sending off Israel defender Roy Revivo for a bad tackle — following the intervention of VAR, Zahavi had the chance to equalise and take the game into extra-time. But the centre-forward sent his penalty wide of goal and, within three minutes, Gudmundsson had extended Iceland’s lead with a fine solo effort.

By the time the Genoa forward completed his hat trick four minutes later, the tie was over.

“We have a really talented generation who have been amazing at the Mundialito [U-20 World Cup] and U-21 Euros, but sometimes in the senior team, it’s different,” Israel goalkeeper Omri Glazer said. “We need to learn from this. We need to know how to protect a result.

“It’s not always about scoring goals and attacking football, sometimes you need to hold back and see out a 1-0 victory. We need to look in the mirror at what we did well and what we didn’t do so well.”

Perhaps Israel will learn from this and maybe their emerging talent will ensure a happier ending to their football story in the years to come. But aside from winning, Israel also want to be at home again.

“We have a Nations League group against Italy, Belgium and France later this year,” Israeli journalist Niv Dovrat said. “Hopefully we can play those games in Israel, but who knows?”