CLASSIC UFWC TITLE MATCH:
Israel 4-1 Russia, 23 February 2000
Friendly, Kiryat-Eliezer Stadium, Haifa, Israel
Scorers: Badir (2), Udi, Nimni (Israel); Beschastnykh (Russia)
The history of football in Israel is almost as complicated and confusing as the history of Israel itself. The Israel Football Association was formed in 1928, 20 years before the state of Israel even existed. For many years of no fixed abode, Israel have played under the governance of five of the six continental bodies, in Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, and South America. They actually won the Asian Nations Cup in 1964, before eventually joining UEFA in 1994.
Israel had made three previous attempts to take the UFWC title, in 1969, 1990, and 1997, losing out to Sweden, Greece, and Germany respectively. By contrast, Russia had already won 40 UFWC title matches (23 as the USSR).
The run-up to this game saw Israel (unassuming nickname: The Holy 11) in something approaching despair after an 8-0 aggregate stuffing by Denmark in the European Championships play-offs. But the Israelis learnt from their defeat. Appreciating that the Danes seemed to know something or other about the game of football, the Israel Football Association hired Danish coach Richard Moeller Nielsen.
His Israeli side boasted two Premiership midfielders in Walid Badir and Avi Nimni. Badir was a Wimbledon player, and Nimni was coming to the end of a short stay at Derby County. Another Israeli midfielder, Idan Tal, would sign for Everton for in the months that followed this game, although his two-year stay at Goodison Park was notable only for being extremely unnotable.
Russia also lined up with a handful of familiar names. Alexei Smertin was at Locomotiv Moscow, although he would later play for Chelsea, Portsmouth, and Charlton. Up front were Zenit St Petersburg’s Alexander Panov, soon to make a big money move to St Etienne, and Spartak Moscow striker Igor Titov, a great goalscorer unfortunately better known for failing a drugs test after a Euro 2004 play-off against Wales.
The game began with Israel in the ascendancy. Badir headed the first goal after just three minutes, debutant Kfir Udi walked in the second after a defensive mix-up, and Badir drove in the third when a misplaced clearance fell at his feet. 3-0 down at half-time, Russia replaced Panov with their highest post-USSR goalscorer Vladimir Beschastnykh.
The move appeared to pay dividends, as Beschastnykh converted a penalty in the 58th minute. Russia netted again and seemed to be back in the game – only for the goal to be ruled offside. Then Nimni scored a deflected shot for Israel to seal the 4-1 victory.
The Russian press hammered their team, and manager Oleg Romantsev was said to be close to quitting. ‘We are all to blame,’ said Russian assistant coach Mikhail Gershkovich. ‘We were very bad.’ Accordingly, that meant Israel weren’t particularly good, and, having held off Georgia in a 1-1 draw, the Israelis duly lost the UFWC title to the Czech Republic in April 2000 via a 4-1 reversal. However, the achievement of Israel cannot be overlooked, and they remain one of the unlikeliest sides ever to win the UFWC.