Updated: Jul 5
The footballing community is witnessing the ascension of an emerging competitor in the form of Israel.
By no stretch a household name in international football, Israel are making strides in the junior levels with the long-term ambition of the betterment of the sport across the nation: from the most senior level of the game all the way down to grassroots.
Israel are one of four teams remaining in the UEFA European Under-21 Championship, as they prepare to face England in the semifinals on Wednesday.
The Israelis overcame Georgia in the quarters, narrowly beating the co-hosts in a penalty shootout in Tbilisi.
Israel have already come up against England once at this tournament, in the group phase, where the latter ran out 2-0 winners.
This England side is a tough nut to crack and the blue-and-white will need to be on top of their game in order to cause an upset and advance to the final.
The Young Lions have yet to concede at this Euro showpiece, having gone four games (six hours) without picking the ball out of their net. In addition, they have taken victory in 15 out of 20 matches under head coach Lee Carsley.
Regardless of the outcome at this U-21 Euro tournament, Israel have already sealed qualification for next year's Olympic Games to be staged in France.
For a number of years the Olympics have imposed an age limit of 23 years-old for male footballers competing in the Games, allowing for those involved in the qualifying process to be selected for the event itself. All participating nations are permitted to include up to three over-age players on their rosters.
The last time Israel's men's football team appeared at the Olympics was in Montreal 1976, from which they walked away with a fifth-place finish.
2023 has produced a hugely successful summer for Israel's youth teams after the Middle Easterners claimed the bronze medal at the U-20 World Cup in Argentina last month. The blue-and-white army beat South Korea by three goals to one in the third-place playoff.
This was Israel's first time partaking in the U-20 World Cup and needless to say they exceeded all expectations. Ofir Haim's side earned a shock win over tournament favourites Brazil, 3-2, in the quarterfinals before losing out to eventual champions Uruguay in the semis.
Select players have represented Israel at both the recent U-20 World Cup and the ongoing U-21 Euro.
The pair of Dor Turgeman and Stav Lemkin have played in ten international matches over a 40-day span, with six at the World Cup followed by four (and counting) at the Euro which is due to wrap up this weekend.
Turgeman, 19, is one of his country's brightest young prospects though he hasn't been on the receiving end of an extended run of games for his club, Maccabi Tel Aviv, nor has he been selected for the senior national team. This may yet change in the near future following the appointment of Robbie Keane as head coach at Bloomfield Stadium.
Oscar Gloukh also appears to have a bright future ahead of him, one in which he may well emerge as the face of Israeli football. The 19-year-old has played six times for the national team and earlier this year he completed a €7million transfer to Red Bull Salzburg in Austria.
Another attacking player, Anan Khalaili was his country's top scorer at the recent U-20 World Cup, finding the net three times at the showpiece.
The Maccabi Haifa forward doesn't turn 19 until September although he is already sparking interest around Europe, with Wolfsburg (Germany) and RB Salzburg rumoured to be interested in Khalaili's services.
Roy Revivo missed the clash with Georgia through suspension though the left-back is expected to make a return to the XI on Wednesday.
Revivo, contracted to Maccabi Tel Aviv, earned his senior international debut last month as Israel saw off Andorra in a Euro 2024 qualifier.
Goalkeeper Daniel Peretz is suspended for the semi-final versus England after accumulating multiple yellow cards. He saved the penalty of Giorgio Gagua’s on Saturday but earlier went into the referee’s book for time wasting.
Peretz previously kept out two spot-kicks against Germany in his team’s opening game of the U-21 Euro, in which the Maccabi Tel Aviv goalie was also booked for time wasting.
Likely to deputise in the absence of Peretz is 19-year-old Tomer Zarfati, who kept goal for Israel throughout the U-20 World Cup last month.
Eden Kartsev is also unavailable for the meeting with England after the midfielder picked up yellows against both Czechia and Georgia. Kartsev also missed the group game with England after he was sent off for two bookable offences versus Germany.
A handful of those at the fore with the junior national teams are not yet prominent ingredients at club level, though you’d expect that to change over the months and years to come.
One such individual is Gil Cohen, captain of the Under-21 side. The centre-back has played every minute of his nation’s campaign in Georgia & Romania yet he featured just eight times for Ashdod SC, a mid-table team in the Israeli Premier League.
Fellow central defender Lemkin (Hapoel Tel Aviv) has been ever-present across both youth tournaments this summer and he has formed a solid partnership with Cohen at the heart of Guy Luzon's defence.
Israel have produced some promising cameos going forward but may appear vulnerable at the back. When they come up against England, the attack-minded players will need to up the ante as goal-scoring opportunities could prove few and far between.
Turgeman and Gloukh squandered big chances in the opening stages of the first-half versus Georgia, before Omri Gendelman struck the post early in the second period.
Despite more than 40,000 of the crowd inside Boris Paitchadze Dinamo Arena backing the home favourites, Georgia threatened but couldn't muster a single attempt on target before the shootout commenced.
Israel won on penalties and subsequently celebrated with their few thousand followers donning blue and white flags and merchandise.
The Middle East nation have scored just twice in their four games at this Euro and this will bode well for an England team yet to concede a goal at the event.
Despite the lack of goals it has been enough for Israel to reach the last-four with the prospect of securing a medal over one of Europe's more renowned and respected footballing nations.
A possession-dominant England outfit stands between Israel and the final, in which the winners will face one of Spain or Ukraine. Israel is the only semi-finalist not ranked inside FIFA's top 25 – or top 50 for that matter.
It is hoped the resurgence of Israeli youth teams will translate to senior level, with the national team bidding to qualify for the Euro 2024 tournament in 12 months' time.
Israel sit in 3rd place with 7 points in Group I of Euro Qualifying. They have six qualifiers left to play, including at home to Belarus (12 September) and Switzerland (12 October) in Tel Aviv, and against Romania (18 November) in Jerusalem.
Three wins from their six remaining qualifiers would go a long way towards seeing Israel qualify for its first major tournament since the 1970 World Cup.
Such an achievement, coupled with the recent successes at youth level, would be quite remarkable given Israel's population (estimated at 9,500,000) and its FIFA world ranking (75th).
Israel are currently ranked nearer to their worst-ever ranking (99th in 2018) than their best (15th in 2008), and the nation has not been ranked inside FIFA's top 50 nations for almost a decade.
The collective success at the U-20 World Cup and U-21 Euro may prompt Alon Hazan, head coach of the national team, to award call-ups to a handful of those who starred for the blue-and-white at said youth tournaments.
Sooner or later a host of the aforementioned youth players would ideally play alongside the likes of Manor Solomon, who has earned 35 caps for Israel and is reportedly bound to join Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League.
Solomon, 23, spent last season at another London-based club, Fulham, on loan from Ukrainian outfit Shakhtar Donetsk.
No Premier League club has owned an Israel international since Yossi Benayoun's seven-year stay in the English top flight until 2012, though it is hoped there will be an upward trend of those following in the footsteps of Benayoun and Solomon.
(Cover Image: Israel Football Association on Facebook)