Much of the credit has gone to manager Avraham Grant, a self-professed NBA nut and motivational guru who has attended all but two of the past 17 NBA Finals. (If you look closely at a rerun of Game 7 in '88, you can see Grant peeking in on Pat Riley's huddle with the Los Angeles Lakers.) "We've tried to give our players the basis for dealing with the worst things that could come along," Grant says. "The point is to instill the feeling that you don't break down on the field, you don't give in." To drive that home Grant has shown the players their top highlights intercut with footage of Muhammad Ali, Lance Armstrong and Michael Jordan. On the team bus before Israel's last qualifier, in Dublin, Grant fired up the lads with a scene of Mel Gibson rallying his troops to war in Braveheart; after falling behind 2-0, Israel engineered a stunning 2-2 tie.
Grant has modeled his team on the same template--constant effort, stifling defense, unwavering teamwork--that Greece, the classic underdog, used to win last year's European championship. It's hardly the Beautiful Game, but you can't argue with the results. "This national team is not about star players; it's about playing together," says midfielder Idan Tal. "You've seen a change in world soccer with Greece and also with Korea and the U.S. doing so well at the last World Cup. Now everyone believes we can do it too. Just a little more effort, and we can go to the World Cup."
It won't be easy. Only the group's top finisher will qualify outright, with the runner-up advancing to a playoff with another group's second-place team for one of Europe's four remaining berths. Ireland has the most favorable remaining schedule, its two tough matches both coming at home. The Swiss have the best chance to play the spoiler, with three of their final four games against the Big Four. And the underperforming French will no doubt be buoyed by the return of Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele, proven stars who've ended their international retirements to try to save Les Bleus.
Israel has nowhere near the experience of those teams, and yet there's something special, maybe even historic, about this outfit. "In previous years, whenever Israel was involved in crucial matches, the fans always knew they would crack under the pressure," says Nir Kipnis, a longtime sportswriter for the magazine Blazer. "This team is different. They have more character." Win in Basel on Sept. 3, and the Israelis could begin planning for Germany, or at least a spot in the European playoffs. (Only two matches against the winless Faeroes would remain.) Tie, and because of their poor goal differential, their chances would be slim. Lose, and they would effectively be out.
Israel's press, conditioned by years of dashed hopes, is forecasting more heartbreak. Yet Shpigler, the only Israeli to have scored in a World Cup, says he has already imagined himself wearing a new suit to Israel's opener in Germany next year, already imagined sitting between Franz Beckenbauer and Pel�, his old New York Cosmos pals, in the VIP tribune. Mathematically, a tie in Basel won't eliminate Israel from contention, but.... "I realize that to get to the World Cup we have to win in Switzerland, and in order to win we have to be daring," Shpigler says. "It will be hard, but we can take them by surprise. You know, Basel is a place where wonderful things happen to us in history."
In a tale already rife with symbols, consider one more: Israel's day of reckoning will take place in the same city where, in 1897, Theodor Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress, the body that proposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Pessimists scoffed at that notion too. "So, you see, we are playing a home game in Basel!" Shpigler bellows, a smile lighting up his face. "I always say every qualifying campaign, now we are going to the World Cup again, but I was never right until today! Be careful, Brazil!"
Amid the joy and optimism, the question hangs in the air like the faint scent of gunpowder. If Israel makes it to the World Cup, the world's biggest sporting stage, would Abbas Suan and Walid Badir consider a high-profile protest, a symbolic statement like the famous black-power salute by African-American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City?
"Something like that has never happened in Israel," says Tamir Sorek, a Cornell sociology professor who has studied Israeli Arab soccer fans since 1998. "The Arabs in Israel very rarely use sports as a stage for national protest. For many of the Arab fans there are enough spheres of conflict for Arabs and Jews in Israel, and they want to keep the soccer sphere isolated from these conflicts."
That may be true, but not every leading Israeli Arab wants soccer to be a politics-free zone. "It's an opportunity to say to the whole world that we are the Arab minority in Israel, that it's an honor for us to play on the national team, and that we want coexistence but we are still living in a lot of difficulties," says Bahloul, a 30-year veteran of Israeli network television and the most respected Israeli Arab sports commentator. "There is a huge gap between the Arabs and the Jews in Israel. Our city budgets are lower. The infrastructure is not as developed. The poor and unemployed are much more common. You cannot separate sports from our lives."
What would you do if you were Abbas Suan? Would you dip your toe into the pool of protest, knowing that once you go there you can't come back? Would you tell your family's tragic story? How your father, as a boy, fled advancing Israeli forces with his family during the war in 1948. How they left behind their house, their furniture, their prized 175 acres of land. How they settled in Sakhnin, a poor Arab town, only to have your grandfather die prematurely, leaving a widow and eight children who worked 16-hour days to survive. How your father, now 68 and living in your house, can still show visitors the deeds to the family's land and wonder, 57 years later, if there will ever be reparations.