The whole nation is behind you, now go get that World Cup!

Up from close, the Israeli U20 national team players look like teens, but soon the large money will begin flowing and they will embark on their demanding professional careers; They happened to represent a country that yearns for some good news, happiness that is complete consensus; It may be exaggerated, even a bit pathetic, but who cares

Nahum Barnea, La Plata, Argentina|
The city of La Plata in Argentina is home to around 600,000 people. A gray, sleepy town about an hour and a half's drive from Buenos Aires. It is home to two top-flight soccer teams, Estudiantes and Gimnasia.
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The Israeli national team for the FIFA U20 World Cup is training at the Estudiantes' training ground at the edge of town. There is much to be learned from Argentina's situation: fields and cabins that knew better days, many cabins, many fields, and soccer as a mechanism for national comfort.
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נבחרת הנוער
נבחרת הנוער
The Israeli U20 national soccer team
(Photo: AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Argentina is a once-great country that has fallen from the first world to the third world. Much of the blame falls on corrupt, populist politics. "I hope this doesn't happen to us anytime soon," I wrote to one of my colleagues.
In the taxi I took from the airport, the driver offered to exchange dollars at black-market rates. The difference between the official rate in the bank and his was 50%, a result of inflation hitting 200%. He gave me a large bundle of orange-colored bills. During the ride, he continued to improve his rate even more.
After Indonesia's backward and anachronistic refusal to host the Israeli national team, Argentina volunteered to host the U20 World Cup. The stadiums that were available were selected. If the stadium in La Plata is full tomorrow, it will only be because of the proximity of Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, to Buenos Aires: a short trip over one bridge or a short cruise connects the two cities.
Tuesday in La Plata, it was cloudy and cool, ideal weather for soccer. It's not fair to call professional players who are pushing their twenties kids, but up close they resemble teenagers: running on the field like excited puppies, living within their own internal folklore, sharing inside jokes and engaging in the roughhousing that characterizes this age.
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שחקני נבחרת הנוער של ישראל דורשים פנדל נגד ברזיל
שחקני נבחרת הנוער של ישראל דורשים פנדל נגד ברזיל
Israeli players demand a penalty from the referee during the quarter-finals game against Brazil
(AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Meanwhile, each one of them has an agent who is shaping their future, a career they are committed to and dreams that are worth millions of euros. This is how it is in professional sports: careers destroy adolescence. Participation in young national teams is the last opportunity to hang out, to be kids among kids.
They happened to represent a country that yearns for some good news, happiness that is complete consensus. It may be exaggerated, even a bit pathetic, but who cares.
We've swallowed many frogs in recent months, and many more will be swallowed in the coming months. We need to be happy with what we have. It doesn't hurt me to get out of proportion when a young man wearing my country's flag scores a goal. When the commentator, Yonatan Cohen, gets excited, so do I. Soccer speaks to the child inside us. Let him speak. What's with all the cynicism? What's the harm?
On the field, the players gather in a circle for a pep talk from their coach Ofir Haim. It's a show: it's prescripted that the coach will say half a sentence, and then the captain Ilay Madmon will interrupt, cut him off and remind everyone that they need to first congratulate Itamar.
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Coach Ofir Haim
Coach Ofir Haim
Coach Ofir Haim
(Photo: Reuters)
The players don't know who Itamar is. He's a boy celebrating his bar mitzvah, and his parents, as is customary, sought out a celebrity who would agree to record a birthday wish for him. The novelty is that the under-20 national team's players have become the country's top celebrities, national heroes.
Ofir Haim, the coach, is also a kid, loving and loved by his players. He deserves to be crowned the best teacher in the country. He probably provides these young men with the right mix of father, brother, nanny and friend. I'm told he goes into their rooms at night to joke around with them before bed. I don't think that's what coaches in the Israeli top flight do.
Boni Ginzburg, the technical director of the youth national teams, harnesses the celebration on the pitch to terms that connect to a structured program. "If Israel wants to move from 78th place in the world to 30th place, it has to start from the pyramid's base, from the age of 16," he says. "To send young people to Europe, to the top leagues".
I told him that in the past, boys who went to Europe were broken. Homesickness killed them. The demands are also high. "The current generation lives in a different world", he said, "even the media is different".
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נבחרת הנוער מונדיאליטו
נבחרת הנוער מונדיאליטו
(Photo: Buda Mendes/FIFA via Getty Images)
I told him that the significant involvement of Arab players makes the team's achievements even more joyful. "True equality," he said, "everybody is mixed up with everyone. There's no politics."
I told him that they’re all in their TikTok and politics will enter their world once they grow up. For now, let them celebrate.
The training was short. "This is a recovery day," explained Ginzburg. The bus, accompanied by a long convoy of police motorbikes and cars, sirens blaring and flashing blue lights, cut through the city's streets. A taxi driver pulled to the side respectfully. "What's that?" I asked him. "It's FIFA," he replied.
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