One message from the Israeli FA a few months ago shocked everyone. The newly appointed manager of the national team will be Andreas Herzog. The Austrian was the former manager of Austria U-21 and USA U-23 national teams, as well as the assistant coach of Jürgen Klinsmann in the USA senior national team, but he was something else for the Israelis.
In 1992 Israel became a full member of UEFA. During the first decade of Israel in its new home, Herzog was there a few times.
Israel played its debut match in the UEFA in 1994 World Cup qualifiers, when the national team traveled to Vienna. Herzog scored the first goals that Israel conceded in that campaign in a match that eventually ended with a 5-2 win for Austria.
The next time that the teams faced each other was in the Euro 2000 qualifiers. The day of June 6, 1999, became a memorable date for every Israeli football fan. Israel thrashed Austria 5-0, as Herzog and his teammates could do nothing in a match that considered as one of the all-time greatest for Israel.
The teams were drawn to play together again, this time in the 2002 World Cup qualifiers. Herzog scored once again in the first match in Vienna, but the real clash occurred a few months later. The game was scheduled to be played in Israel, but it was postponed due to security reasons. During the days before the match, Herzog made a few statements against playing that match in Israel and the local fans treat him as a fierce rival.
During this match, Israel took the lead first, but everything has changed in additional time. A direct free kick for Austria was scored and equalised the result, which was enough for Austria to qualify for the playoffs. The scorer was Herzog once again.
Herzog's goal in the 2002 World Cup qualifiers was traumatic for the local fans. Eyal Berkovic, who was one of the leading Israeli players back then, had a lot to say. Almost 20 years later, Berkovic is nowadays a football commentator, known for his uncensored opinions, still can’t forget Andreas Herzog.
"It's one of the saddest night of Israeli football ever," wrote Berkovic in his Instagram. "It's a shame that Herzog was appointed to be the next manager. How is it possible to choose a national manager that hates Israel? More than ten years ago he didn't want to play here." Berkovic also criticised the FA for their decision, "Those who appointed him may need to meet a psychiatrist. Unless there is no reason for that."
Berkovic's opinions became more popular among commentators and fans. There was also a common idea that Austrians are trying to take over the national team. Herzog was appointed after another Austrian, Willi Ruttensteiner, was selected as the Israeli FA sports director and most of Herzog's staff are Austrians. Former players and managers said that there is no reason to have a foreign manager while there are decent managers in Israel.
Since his first moment in the national team, Herzog took several decisions, but two of them were more important for the team's future.
The first one was to get back Eran Zahavi to the national team. During the previous campaign, Zahavi was the team's captain but failed to impress. In one of the final matches, when Israel produced a disappointing performance against Macedonia and the fans shouted against him, Zahavi decided to throw away his captain armband as a protest. The FA suspended him and he was criticised heavily for his action.
When Herzog spoke about his plans for the team, he had no doubt that Zahavi will return to the squad. "I was impressed since the first moment he got on the pitch," said Herzog about him. He stated that he wants the best players in the squad and the striker that plays in China for Guangzhou R&F is one of them.
While the comments about Zahavi's comeback were negative, Herzog completely ignored them, and he got his payback. Zahavi already scored four goals in his first two Euro 2020 qualifiers and six goals in Herzog era.
Herzog presented another new thing for the team, a high number of non-Jewish players. While Israel is a multicultural country, the national team had a few Arab players in its first XI or even in the squad.
It's didn't happen because of racist reasons, but because of criticism like in other places in the world about the loyalty of such players. For example, when Bibars Natkho, a Circassian-Muslim player, became the team's captain, Eyal Berkovic and other critics stated that it's not appropriate that the captain wouldn't sing the national anthem.
As a foreigner, Andreas Herzog didn't want to deal with these type of issues. Once again, it was all about the best players to play. Natkho is still the team's captain, while you can see now even five Arab players in the first XI. Some of them are also leading players, like Brighton's Beram Kayal and Munas Dabbur, that will transfer to Sevilla this summer.
The Austrian manager made something that no other Israeli manager ever dared to do before – mix between Jews and Arabs in the national team. If you want to add more spice to this mix, all you need to do is to take a look when Dabour and Herzog are speaking in German while both are representing Israel.
Andreas Herzog, who was considered as the eternal evil rival of Israeli football, became the new hero. After years of bad results, there is a feeling that something has changed. The players always mention it when they are gathering for their national missions, and you can even see it on the pitch.
Eran Zahavi, who felt the national team in worse days, described the change in his Instagram after the 4-2 win against Austria. "It was a win of a team, players who play for each other and support during the hard moments of the game."
Maybe that was what the team needed. The one coach that could make them believe that they can do everything, like scoring a decisive goal in additional time. Who can guide to do it better than a manager that already has done it before?