Present, Not Past, On Eliyahu’s Mind

19.08.2011

DESTINATION LITHUANIA

Mark Woods

Every week, fibaeurope.com collaborator Mark Woods talks to players with a single travel destination in mind this summer, Lithuania.

Next in the series is Lior Eliyahu, Israel's athletic power forward.

Mark Woods writes on basketball for a number of British newspapers as well as broadcasting for the BBC and Sky Sports. He is also assistant editor of mvp247.com and can be found on Twitter @markbritball.

Lior Eliyahu goes back a long way with Arik Shivek, right back to when the Israeli forward was a mere teenager and his coach still trying to make his way up the ladder of the profession.

Their paths diverged. Each grew in stature. But the comfort level remains intact.
"He's a great coach," says Eliyahu.

"He's done it at the highest level." Almost. There is a level which lies beyond - where neither man has previously travelled alone or in unison. Getting there together is an ambition they most definitely share.

It is, agrees Eliyahu, one of the enigmas of global basketball that Israel has never been able to translate the success of its greatest club into success on the international stage. While Maccabi Tel Aviv, his current employer, has won five European titles, only once - in 1979 - has its motherland reached the podium in a major competition.

11. Lior Eliyahu (Israel)
Lior Eliyahu is eager to replicate with the national team the success he has experienced at club level and help Israel take the next step

They took the silver medal then, at the EuroBasket. Nothing else has ever come close. Even more incredulous is that Israel has only made one appearance at an Olympic Games, 59 years ago.

Re-writing history, overcoming it even, is on the minds of the current generation as they ready themselves to travel to Lithuania.

"We have a great tradition, getting to the European Championships," Eliyahu observes. "But we've struggled to qualify for the world championships and Olympic Games. That's a dream for me. I want to be in London. That's the sign of a great team.

"All of our players play at the high level with their clubs in Europe. We believe we can make it, even if it's through coming in the top six and going into the qualification tournament. This is a great opportunity for us."

The 25-year-old is in confident mood. Coming off a season when Maccabi again reached the Euroleague Final Four, he has no inferiority complex. It helps chemistry, he says, to have a clutch of his team-mates from Tel Aviv beside him now as Shivek plots a path through a series of warm-up games which followed a rigorous camp of two-a-day practices.

"It's been a lot of hard work," he confirms. Just as you would expect.
Losses to Bulgaria, Georgia and the Netherlands, plus the uncertainty over the health of Omri Casspi, have hindered Israel's approach to EuroBasket.

They are smart enough to know that such setbacks can be easily forgotten. However the internal competition has been just as intense. No-one wants to miss out when Shivek makes his last cuts after this week's trip to Georgia. It has, Eliyahu concedes, become a fight to make the final roster.

"Of course, everyone wants one of the 12 places on the plane to Lithuania," he reveals. "I guess it's the same for every country. Everyone wants to be a part of their national teams.

"We've had 16-18 players who are all capable of making a contribution. When the rules were changed so that the squads went from 14 to 12, it made the competition even more intense. But that has been healthy in camp."

They will be ready, he promises. They will surely need to be. The Israelis must overcome a daunting first round group in Siauliai that also includes France, Germany, Latvia and Serbia.
The pathway to the Olympics is fraught with peril. Little comfort, ample difficulty, if history is to be changed.

"It's a very tough group," Eliyahu declares. "That makes it more interesting. Those are great teams, most of them with NBA players and Euroleague players. It's going to be tough. We'll have to play strongly. But we have good players of our own."

 


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