Israeli captain Tal Ben Haim has told the Jewish News he believes Israel has “a good chance” of qualifying for next year’s European Championships.
The 32-year-old leads his country into two crucial games over the next five days – hosting Wales on Saturday night and Belgium on Tuesday – and knows victories in both will go a long way to securing their place in France next summer.
Having captained the side to three wins in their opening three games, he said: “We don’t feel under pressure – given our good start, but obviously want to qualify and we have a good chance to do it now, especially after our good start to the campaign.
“When the draw was made, we thought Belgium were the favourites, now I don’t think there are any favourites.”
Sitting top of Group B after victories over Cyprus, Andorra and Bosnia, the Charlton Athletic defender believes the strength of the team as a whole is key to their 100 percent winning start. He said: “Winning our first three games hasn’t been a surprise for me. Before we started, I saw the players we had, saw how we played in friendly games and I’m happy that we took it to the qualification campaign.
“The strengths of this team is the togetherness, it’s the first time [since I’ve been involved with the squad] we feel like we’re together, and not as individuals. I don’t know if this is the best squad we’ve had in terms of players, but we have a better group. We have a good mix of youth and experienced players and are really happy about that. We get on really well together, which we’ve showed in the previous games and I hope we can continue this.”
Their next two games will offer sterner opposition than the previous three, though Ben Haim isn’t too fazed by facing the likes of Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard.
“There’s no doubt that they’re in the best five players in the world, but we have to prepare to play them as a team, not as individuals,” he says. “I may have played against Bale once, but it’s not just about him. They have Aaron Ramsey, good players who play in the Premier League, we’re not going to focus on just one player.”
Saying the squad are taking one game at a time, he says: “We don’t go into these two games thinking about how many points we’ll take from them. I think only about the first game which will be really tough, but obviously possible especially after we proved to ourselves [what we can do] against Bosnia, we take a lot of confidence from that 3-0 win and want to take that into the Wales game. The winner will get an advantage and gain more confidence from winning the game, but it’s only one game and we’ll still have six left.”
But admitting there’s a heightened sense of expectation in Israel following their start, he hopes the fans can help spur them on. “I’ve played against the likes of England, France, Germany, but in terms of importance it’s no doubt the most important game because we’ve started very well and want to continue that. 30,000 fans bought tickets for the Wales match three months ago and we want to do well for them.
“Our fans are really passionate about the game and it will be a really good atmosphere. The media, people in the street all talk about it. We will have all the country behind us and want to make them happy, to put a smile on their faces. Sometimes they go through a difficult period and we know when we represent our country playing football, it’s the best way to put a smile on people’s faces and we’re looking forward to doing it.”
And describing the pride he gets in captaining the side, he says: “I’m proud to lead them, especially when we sing the Hatikva.”