Watching Israel ‘at home’ in Hungary, a team aiming for Euro 2024 amid the backdrop of war

If only for a short time, this was back to being a story of sport and its fine, agonising margins.

Switzerland held qualification for next summer’s European Championship in their grasp, defending a narrow 1-0 lead that would be sufficient for thousands of fans to start planning a summer of adventures in Germany. They were minutes away, almost within reach.

Then came the twist. Israel’s 88th-minute equaliser through substitute Shon Weissman might change everything and it might change nothing in the race to reach Euro 2024, but there and then it brought a rush of joy to one bench and deflation to the other.

It was a moment to illustrate international football’s enduring charms but the unlikely backdrop to it all revealed that bigger, more complicated picture.

A fixture that had to be rearranged due to the outbreak of war in Israel and Gaza was played out in the rural Hungarian village of Felcsut, rather than Tel Aviv, and making up most of the modest crowd were supporters who had lost family at the hands of Palestinian militants. “We know why they have come and what happened to them,” said head coach Alon Hazan afterwards. “We wanted to play for them.”

Israel had purposely made this a fixture with greater depth than just qualification for Euro 2024, an ambition that now demands a win against Romania on Sunday. Three planes had flown in fans from southern Israel on the eve of the game, with 600 said to have travelled to the Pancho Arena. They held up pictures of Israeli hostages still missing in Gaza after seven minutes of the match and released blue and white balloons into the night sky.

“We cannot separate it, we cannot put it on the side,” said Hazan.

And nor does Israel want to. Its players had walked out of the tunnel before kick-off holding the hand of an imaginary mascot, symbolism for the young Israelis among the 240 hostages currently being held in Gaza.

Captain Eli Dasa, the Dynamo Moscow full-back, had earlier held an Adidas trainer belonging to eight-year-old boy Neve Shoham at his pre-match press conference. A tearful Dasa said it had been the only thing left behind after the attacks that claimed 1,200 Israeli lives on October 7.

“It’s hard to speak,” said Dasa. “This kid is in Gaza at the moment with seven people from his family and that is all that is left at his house. His left shoe. We wait for him here.”

Sport and politics can be uncomfortable bedfellows but with Israel there has been a steadfast refusal to break them apart. At a time when the country’s armed forces continue a heavy counter-offensive that has claimed more than 11,000 lives in Gaza, there has been a nationalistic pride attached to Hazan and his players. They are flagbearers for a nation at war.

“It’s not easy, I will not lie,” said Eran Zahavi, Israel’s record goalscorer who has come out of international retirement to feature in this sequence of games. “It’s very difficult to disconnect from this situation (the war). We’re here to represent Israel in the best way we can. The easy solution would be not to play but we hope to make all of our country really happy.”

They will have achieved that on Wednesday night. For all there were times when an unbeaten Switzerland side promised to pull clear once Ruben Vargas had opened the scoring nine minutes before half time, improvements in the second half culminated with Weissman’s late strike. Two wins from their remaining two games, against Romania and Andorra, might yet be enough for Israel to qualify for their first European Championship finals.

If Israel are eventually to book a place in Germany next summer, they will have overcome sharp challenges to get there. Half of the current 31-man squad had not played competitive football in over a month following the pause of the Israeli Premier League, now due to resume on November 25, with a short training camp organised before travelling to Kosovo in an international break widened by UEFA.

Those days of preparation included the team bus pulling over on a major road outside of Tel Aviv amid the shelling above. All players and staff were told to seek shelter in a nearby ditch. The moment was captured in a video posted on the Israeli FA social media channels.

Security has been heightened around a squad that will spend close to a fortnight together.

It was reported in Israel that about 50 specialist security personnel have travelled with the players and coaching staff, with team hotels closed off to the public.

The dangers felt in Kosovo, a predominantly Muslim nation, were particularly acute. Armed guards were deployed around the stadium and all fans in a small crowd were made to bring ID that matched their ticket.

That game, a damaging 1-0 loss, passed off without incident beyond the unveiling of a giant Palestine flag from a high-rise building in Pristina. It was hung alongside a giant Ukraine flag but the new addition, including the words “Free Palestine”, was quickly taken down by local authorities.

If Kosovo presented concerns, those have been less evident in Hungary, the country carefully picked to host these two home games against Switzerland and Romania.

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s nationalist prime minister, has been a long-standing ally of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Pancho Arena, built under his instructions nine years ago, neighbours one of his rural retreats. Orban, who spent part of his childhood in Felcsut, was among the VIPs in attendance at the match, claiming Hungary was now the “safest country in Europe” for Jews.

Orban was also name-checked and thanked by the Israeli stadium announcer before kick-off. “You made the impossible become real,” he said.

Nearby Budapest, too, has strong Jewish connections. The historic Jewish Quarter of Hungary’s capital is where the Budapest Ghetto was set up in the closing months of the Second World War, with 70,000 thousands Jews forced to relocate there until its liberation by the Soviet Army. It is estimated 10,000 of those lost their lives over the course of two months.

The Jewish Quarter is now a fashionable area of Budapest, full of cafes and restaurants, and includes the Hungarian Jewish Museum, based on the grounds of the vast Dohany Street Synagogue.

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A sign outside the Dohany Street Synagogue calls for the return of Israeli hostages (Photo: Phil Buckingham)

Tourists queued there to enter through airport-style security on the morning of the Switzerland fixture and the watching police officers and security guards underlined these are not ordinary times.

The same extended to Felcsut, where a huge police operation was set up around the Pancho Arena since Israel’s squad arrived at 4am on Monday following a flight straight out of Pristina. A hotel at the Puskas Akademia and six pitches has given them a heavily-policed training base until after welcoming Romania there on Saturday.

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The Israeli team have been given heavy police protection this week (Photo: David Balogh/Getty Images)

Police were positioned on the stadium’s roof before Wednesday’s game and every person entering the site had to pass through two checkpoints. Orban’s presence underlined the confidence of the local security operation.

Countries including Cyprus, Poland and Germany were considered before it was decided Hungary, and Felcsut specifically, would be best suited.

“Israeli athletes have good experiences in Hungary, the sports facilities are excellent, and Hungarians always organise similar events at a high level,” Yacov Hadas-Handelsman, Israel’s ambassador to Hungary,  told reporters.

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Viktor Orban, left, watched the match despite the huge security operation (Photo: David Balogh/Getty Images)

The decision had been made to allow supporters to attend this modest but hugely impressive stadium in the process that saw it named as Israel’s temporary home. Only 35 Switzerland fans were officially numbered among them and they must now wait until welcoming Kosovo to Basel on Saturday before they can celebrate reaching a sixth consecutive major tournament. The night, in the end, was not theirs.

Israel’s players will not return home until after the trip to Andorra concludes their qualification campaign and already there has been an acceptance of mental fatigue.

Videos were played to the squad before facing Kosovo at the weekend that included words of encouragement from soldiers and children left homeless by the attacks of October 7. Dasa said the messages had reduced him to tears.

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Fans held up pictures of Israeli hostages (Photo: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images)

The ongoing conflict, though, was not easily addressed by all. Switzerland head coach Murat Yakin, who is of Turkish descent, was uncomfortable with a line of questioning from Israeli journalists. “Look, there’s no right answer to that question,” he said, when asked how he felt given the background noise.

Yakin’s greater concerns afterwards were how Switzerland’s lead had been squandered. Vargas’ header ought to have been the platform for a victory and twice the visiting side — whose home is closer than that of Israel — hit the crossbar.

Israel appeared lost, threatening only sporadically, but the second half brought marked improvements. They hit the same crossbar and pushed until Weissman struck an emotionally-charged equaliser. It was Switzerland who lost their composure from that point, with Edimilson Fernandes shown a straight red card by English referee Anthony Taylor following an ugly lunge.

“In the second half we played with courage,” said Hazan. “It was the way we want to play. I would have been happy with a 2-1 but let’s be realistic, overall I am pleased with what we did.”

Israel still have it all to do if they are to qualify automatically. A four-point deficit behind both Switzerland and Romania ensures they will have to beat the latter and then Andorra on Tuesday, while hoping Switzerland can avoid defeat in Bucharest. Qualification through the play-offs in March now appears the most likely route left, having already secured that berth through the Nations League last season.

Doors remain open for Israel and in Hungary they have a place they can temporarily call home.

(Top photo: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images)

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