ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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Herzog hails team's 'incredible and exciting journey'

‘Month of my dreams’: Israeli team toasts U-20 success as foreign clubs eye players

Players, coaches express euphoria and disbelief after winning bronze at soccer World Cup, also disappointment as players leave without individual awards for outstanding performance

Illustrative: Israel's players celebrate after defeating South Korea 3-1 during the FIFA U-20 World Cup third-place soccer match at Diego Maradona stadium in La Plata, Argentina, June 11, 2023. (AP/Gustavo Garello)
Illustrative: Israel's players celebrate after defeating South Korea 3-1 during the FIFA U-20 World Cup third-place soccer match at Diego Maradona stadium in La Plata, Argentina, June 11, 2023. (AP/Gustavo Garello)

Israel’s historic third-place win at the youth World Cup tournament on Sunday sparked disbelief among players alongside talk of career advancement for some of the national team’s star performers.

Israel’s national Under-20 soccer team scored the bronze medal after a 3-1 consolation match win against South Korea, ending its unprecedented run in the global competition.

Many young players caught the eye of scouts from major clubs during the Under-20 World Cup, including Ori Israelov, an 18-year-old defender.

The player is one of the reasons his team reached third place in the tournament in its debut participation. Nearly perfect in the air throughout the U-20 World Cup, Israelov currently plays for Hapoel Tel Aviv and Transfermarkt believes he is worth 300,000 euros.

Other players including Roy Revivo, Stav Lemkin, Dor Turgeman, Hamza Shibli, and Anan Halaili are drawing interest from overseas teams and may receive offers this summer, according to the Walla news site.

Later Sunday, Uruguay, which defeated Israel in the semifinals on Friday, downed Italy 1-0 at La Plata’s Diego Maradona stadium in Argentina to snag its first-ever World Cup Under-20 crown. Uruguay’s championship, its first in three tries, breaks a streak of four consecutive titles for European squads since Brazil took the trophy in 2011.

Israel’s Or Israelov, right, and Brazil’s Matheus Nascimento battle for the ball during a FIFA U-20 World Cup quarterfinal soccer match at Bicentenario stadium in San Juan, Argentina, June 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Israeli players were congratulated by their Uruguayan rivals before the medal ceremony. The Israelis stunned powerhouse Brazil in the quarterfinals, but their charmed progress was stopped with a 1-0 defeat by Uruguay in the last four.

The Israeli team was disappointed though, when none of their players received individual awards for outstanding players, even as one of the South Korean team won third place in the player rankings for the tournament.

“It’s not clear why none of our players are on the list after such a great tournament,” a spokesperson for the team told the Walla news site, calling the outcome “very puzzling” and “a bit infuriating.”

Despite the lack of recognition, members of the national team were euphoric over their unprecedented success at the tournament.

“It’s the month of my dreams,” coach Ofir Haim said, according to Channel 12 news.

“A month I don’t know I’ll experience again. I trained for this. It is an amazing moment,” he added, thanking those who supported the team.

“At the 85th minute, I heard the fans singing the anthem. They created an atmosphere as if we were at home. It’s impossible to describe the feeling. We are in a craze, intoxicated,” he said

“It’s crazy. There is an outpouring of emotion here. We wanted it so much and were so disappointed by the loss in the semifinals, because we knew we could get the first place. But then we knew we had to win third place in the world,” team captain Ilay Madmon said.

Israel’s coach Ofir Haim, right, and player Shon Edri celebrate after defeating 3-1 South Korea during the FIFA U-20 World Cup third-place soccer match at Diego Maradona stadium in La Plata, Argentina, June 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Gustavo Garello)

Midfielder El Yam Kancepolsky said that he was proud of Israel’s work in the tournament.

“We have a group that has been running together for two years and regardless of talent, we have a great connection together. Along with the coach, we came to the game knowing we are going to win and it doesn’t matter which game it is,” Kancepolsky said.

“No one has caught on yet. We came with expectations but didn’t believe we would get to this place,” said goal-scorer Ran Binyamin, who also thanked fans for their support.

Assistant coach Itai Mordechai said that after their loss in the semifinal, “it was important to finish on a good note and with a bronze medal.”

“Being placed at this level is a tremendous result for Israel. I am sure that the perception in Israel will now change regarding the development of young players,” he said, adding he believed the result was not a one-off and that Israel will regularly make the tournament in the future.

Israel’s Ran Binyamin scores his side’s opening goal against South Korea during the FIFA U-20 World Cup third-place soccer match at Diego Maradona stadium in La Plata, Argentina, June 11, 2023. (AP/Gustavo Garello)

The players will be invited to the President’s Residence and Prime Minister’s Office in the coming weeks for ceremonies marking their achievement.

“Congratulations to Israel’s youth soccer team for a historic achievement – third place in the World Cup! You finished your incredible and exciting journey at the Mundialito and we are all proud of you,” said President Isaac Herzog.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that the win was a “huge achievement, everyone is proud of you.”

“Israel is third place in the world in youth soccer. What an incredible achievement! Such happiness, and big pride for the State of Israel! Go Israel!” said Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar.

Shino Zuaretz, chair of the Israel Football Association, praised the team on their “historic” win.

“The third place and bronze medal are a worthy reward and a memory that won’t be forgotten. We were blessed with a team full of talent, that is proud, mentally strong, powerful, superbly trained, and united,” he said.

Israel’s forward Omer Senior, center, celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the Argentina 2023 U-20 World Cup third-place match between Israel and South Korea at Estadio Unico Diego Armando Maradona stadium in La Plata, Argentina, on June 11, 2023. (Luis ROBAYO / AFP)

Israel initially scraped through to the tournament’s final 16, starting the competition with a heartbreaking, last-minute defeat to Colombia in the first game and a lukewarm draw against Senegal in the second.

But in the third and final group-stage match last week, the youth squad notched Israel’s first-ever win in any FIFA soccer World Cup, with a wild, come-from-behind 2-1 victory over Japan in stoppage time, finishing second in Group C and qualifying.

After that, the team continued its unlikely run last Tuesday with a 97th-minute goal to upend Uzbekistan 1-0 and reach the quarterfinal.

This year marked Israel’s first-ever trip to the U-20 World Cup. Its lone trip to the main World Cup in 1970 ended without a single win.

The tournament was held in Argentina after Indonesia was stripped of its spot as host and participant amid protests in the Muslim-majority country against hosting the Israeli team.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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