November 18, 2007
Yesterday, Israel defeated Russia in soccer 2-1 on a last minute goal, thus handling England a life-line in its quest to qualify for next year's European championship. Had Russia won the match in Tel Aviv, England would have been on life support. Had the match been a draw, England would have needed to defeat Croatia on Wednesday. But with Israel's win, England only needs a draw. That's particularly significant because England will be without its two starting center backs and its two starting forwards (including Wayne Rooney, who had been scoring in virtually every match for club and country until his latest injury).
Israel was lucky to win. Russia outplayed the Israelis for much of the match, and saw what would have been a go-ahead goal hit the post moments before Israel scored the winner. However, Israel played well throughout the qualifying tournament, including a draw against England.
Israel's performance represents another step in the rise of its soccer. This runs contrary to the trend of the past 25 to 30 years. During that period, as one would expect, large nations -- Mexico, the U.S., Japan, Australia -- have progressed significantly, and smaller ones -- Scotland, Belgium, Peru, and Austria -- have declined.
It's not clear why Israel has bucked this trend. I suspect it's because Israel has been unable to compete in Asia due to the hostility of the Arab countries and Iran. Forced to compete in Europe, where the opposition is vastly superior, Israeli soccer has improved dramatically. The downside is that it's much more difficult for Israel to qualify for the World Cup, something Israel has yet to accomplish.