It was Sunday morning at Ben Gurion Airport when players from Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Tel Aviv purposely came together before going their separate ways.
After posing for photographs behind Israeli flags, one group would fly to Larnaca in Cyprus, the other to Warsaw in Poland. The symbolism of the photographs did not need explaining; rivals united in a time of conflict.
Football has ground to a halt in Israel since the start of the war. No competitive matches have been played for over a month and foreign players have been told to stay away.
The mothballed Israeli domestic season could resume before the end of November, with games expected to be behind closed doors, but for its biggest two clubs, there is a return to action on Thursday.
Maccabi Haifa, the reigning champions of Israel, have decamped to Cyprus, where they will play Villarreal in a Europa League group tie. It is a home game of sorts, over 200 miles away on neutral territory.
Maccabi Tel Aviv, meanwhile, have travelled to Poland for an away match against Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk in the Europa Conference League.
European football’s governing body, UEFA, says these two home teams, one from Israel and the other from Ukraine, cannot stage games in their own countries until further notice.
Maccabi Tel Aviv are unsure where they will play their two remaining home fixtures in their Conference League group against Luhansk and KAA Gent. Germany, Poland, Hungary and Cyprus have all been considered as temporary venues.
Meanwhile, Israel’s national side still have Euro 2024 qualifiers against Kosovo on Sunday, Switzerland and Romania next week, then Andorra later this month. Three wins would likely be enough to confirm Israel’s place at next summer’s finals in Germany. Not since the 1970 World Cup has Israel qualified for a major tournament.
None of it will be easy. Home advantage in the key games against Switzerland and Romania has been given up with a temporary move to Hungary, a nation stoically pro-Israel, while half of a 31-man squad has not played since the outbreak of war last month. The four games have also been packed into a 10-day window.
Clubs including Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Tel Aviv have visited victims of the war through their charity foundations. Pictures of missing hostages were placed on the chairs of a press conference to name the latest national team squad. “We will try to give a feeling that we can do a little good,” head coach Alon Hazan told the media last week.
Israel’s upcoming games are sure to be emotionally charged and a window to what awaits will come in Larnaca, where Maccabi Haifa, a Champions League group side last season, face Spanish side Villareal.
The Israeli champions have not played since drawing 0-0 with Panathinaikos on October 5, two days before Hamas breached the borders. Eight foreign players were evacuated in the 24 hours that followed and, until Sunday night, had not seen their Israeli team-mates. Monday brought a first training session as a group, just three days before returning to Europa League action.
Messay Dego, the Haifa head coach, read out a statement rather than taking questions at his press conference on Wednesday. After speaking about the situation in Israel, he concluded by saying: “I love this game in my life that I love, and I would be very happy to play football, but how is it possible? Excuse me.”
The same goes for Maccabi Tel Aviv, who have also been without competitive action since losing to Gent five weeks ago. Head coach Robbie Keane, who only took on the role this summer, was evacuated to Cyprus in the aftermath of the attacks along with assistant Rory Delap, goalkeeping coach Mike Stowell, fitness coach Andy Liddell and analyst Phill Hudson.
None of the coaching staff have returned to Israel and have instead overseen training sessions via video link. Members of the club’s academy coaching staff have been left to run operations at a complex on the outskirts of Tel Aviv that includes safe rooms. A friendly was possible against local side Bnei Yehuda at the training ground last week.
Keane has spent the last month at home in Dublin with his family but travelled to Poland last week, along with his coaching team, ahead of his Israeli players gathering on Sunday. Foreign players have had to work off personalised training programmes, often training with clubs local to their homes.
Reunions in Cyprus and Poland in the last week have come behind heightened security measures. Israeli clubs typically travel overseas with their own security guards, but these trips have seen staff from local forces added amid concerns Israeli teams would be targeted.
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That risk raises unanswered questions about where Israel’s domestic game goes from here. For all there is a willingness for local players and staff to resume the season, foreign players will have reservations about returning to Israel until it is safe to do so.
Keane, who is among the most high-profile names in the Israeli Premier League, is yet to speak about his future as head coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv. Michael Valkanis, the Greek-Australian coach, has already left his position at Hapoel Tel Aviv to join Ajax as assistant coach.
There is a hope — albeit faint — that the coming weeks will bring clarity on security, but there is already a precedent in place for foreign players wishing to leave. Football’s world governing body FIFA introduced temporary employment rules soon after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, allowing players and management to suspend their employment contracts at Ukrainian clubs. It is so far unclear if the same measures will be taken in Israel.
Israel’s national team are in third place in Group I, four points behind second-place Switzerland. A win away to Kosovo and they will have the chance to leapfrog the Swiss when they meet in Hungary on Wednesday. If they qualify, it would be their first major tournament in over half a century. Israel, at worst, have the fall-back of a guaranteed place in the play-offs to be held in March.
“I am proud to embark on this huge challenge with a wonderful team and players who understand very well the magnitude of the hour,” said Yossi Benayoun, the former Liverpool and West Ham United midfielder, who is now sporting director for the Israel national team.
Benayoun has settled his differences with Eran Zahavi, the one-time captain and record goalscorer. The 36-year-old retired from international football 12 months ago after refusing to share a hotel room with a team-mate but made his willingness to return clear following the outbreak of war.
“It wasn’t something easy for me, not in terms of ego but to put aside my professional conduct which guided me for years. I simply decided to take the plunge for the greater good and let’s see what happens,” said Zahavi.
Israel’s two “home” games against Switzerland and Romania will be staged in the picturesque Pancho Arena, a stadium built nine years ago in the tiny village of Felcsut, where Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, spent much of his childhood. Orban is a close ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Fourteen of the 31 players called up by Hazan are based domestically and have not played a game in over a month, but the remainder have continued to have chances with clubs across Europe. Some, including Zahavi, have schedules made all the more demanding by games in the Europa League and Europa Conference League this evening, but the Israel squad will get less than 48 hours together before facing Kosovo.
After a month of inactivity comes a rush of games with clubs and country and though there are minds elsewhere, there is an acceptance these footballers have a role to play.
“Victory can give people some joy after everything they’ve been through in the last month,” said Israel defender Miguel Vitor. “These are difficult times to think about football, but I hope we can contribute and bring some happiness to the country so that people will think about other things.”
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(Top photo: Israel’s midfielder Dor Peretz after scoring against Kosovo in March; by Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)