An army fitness guru, a coach who inspires intense loyalty, Jewish and Arab players who have bridged a steep ethnic divide -- these are some of the ingredients of Israel's compelling drive to qualify for the World Cup.

After seven qualifying matches, the Israeli national team is undefeated in a tough European group and has a chance of reaching the showcase tournament for the first time since 1970.

"We came out of nowhere," coach Avraham Grant said this week, going into Saturday's crucial game against Switzerland in Basel. "We just want this dream to continue."

Only a few years ago, team morale was low and then-coach Shlomo Sharf would berate his players in public. The team was embroiled in a sex scandal in 1999 when some players were accused of partying with prostitutes at a Tel Aviv hotel on the eve of a 5-0 drubbing by Denmark.

Commentators say the current team isn't any more or less talented than the one under Sharf, but that Grant has molded the players into a harmonious unit.

In two World Cup qualifying matches in March, against France and Ireland, Israel's hopes were kept alive by Arab players Walid Badir and Abas Suan, each of whom scored a tying goal. They were celebrated as national heroes -- even though in local club games, fans of rival teams often chant anti-Arab slurs.

Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel's population of 6.8 million, but they live in an uneasy relationship with the Jewish majority and complain of discrimination by the Israeli government. Badir's grandfather was one of about 50 Arabs killed by Israeli border police in 1956 at the Arab town of Kafr Kassem.

Badir stands at attention as the Israeli anthem is played before games, but has said he would be more comfortable if a verse about Israeli Arabs was added to lyrics about Jews returning to their ancient homeland.

Suan said after his goal against Ireland that athletes can set an example on how to get along.

"Now Jews and Arabs have something to agree on. . . . I only hope that Israelis will respect Arabs," he said at the time.

During a training session Wednesday before the team's departure for Switzerland, Badir and Suan made no mention of politics, and instead reiterated the team's mantra -- focus, focus, focus.

"So far, we've acted and played like men," Suan said. "If we keep doing so, plus remain focused, we have a good chance of reaching our goal."

Israel is currently in third place in Group 4, behind Ireland and Switzerland, but ahead of France, Cyprus and the Faeroe Islands. However, Israel is only two points behind group leader Ireland and one point behind Switzerland.

After Saturday's match, the Israelis play at the Faeroe Islands next Wednesday. They host the Faeroes in the final qualifier on Oct. 8.

Only the eight group winners and top two runners-up are guaranteed of making it to the finals next year in Germany. The other six runners-up go into playoffs to decide the final three spots in the 32-team tournament.

"It's obvious that if we get out of this (Swiss) game with three points, the dream will be very close to fulfillment, but I'll take a draw even before the game begins," team captain Avi Nimni told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper.

In five of its seven World Cup qualifiers in recent months, Israel has come from behind to secure a tie.

In June in Dublin, Ireland led 2-0 after 11 minutes, but Israel leveled the score by halftime. During the bus ride to the Dublin stadium, Grant had shown the team a clip from the movie "Braveheart," with Mel Gibson playing a Scottish fighter rallying his outnumbered troops against the English.

"Grant is a great psychologist. He goes with the players, not against the players," said Israeli sports columnist Aviad Pohoryles, who writes for the Maariv daily.

Grant also brought in Lt. Col. Avi Moyal, 49, the fitness trainer for Sayeret Matkal, an elite commando unit in the Israeli military. Once a month, the players are put through army drills, but Moyal told Maariv that attitude is just as important as fitness.

"Most of the improvement is made mentally," Moyal said. "In lectures, we visualize episodes likely to take place on the field."

Team spirit is also a big factor. Star midfielder Yossi Benayoun is the heart of the close-knit group, along with defender Tal Ben-Haim and Nimni, who has been playing for Grant on various local teams since the early 1990s.

Israel has made it to the World Cup only once, in 1970 in Mexico, after being assigned to the Oceania qualifying group. Israel was eliminated in the first round in Mexico.

Since then, Israel twice has come close to qualifying, including for the 2002 World Cup. The team led 1-0 for most of its qualifier against Austria, but Austria scored from a free kick in injury time to bury Israel's chances.

Grant's predecessor, Richard Moeller Nielsen of Denmark, resigned in May 2002 after just two years as coach, in part because of his failure to get Israel into the World Cup and a 7-1 defeat in an exhibition match against Germany.

Now, expectations are running high.

"We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in the World Cup," Benayoun told Maariv. "There is pressure, but it has to be channeled positively. This time, we have to do it."

"Now Jews and Arabs have something to agree on,"said Abas Suan, left, who has helped Israel contend for World Cup berth.Israel's team celebrates after victory over Ukraine, during the soccer tournament in Kiev, Ukraine.