Eyes on Israel

Jon Holmes looks at what hosting the European U21 Championship next month means to Israel.

Last Updated: 02/06/13 at 10:35

Israel Under-21s: Excited ahead of tournament

Israel Under-21s: Excited ahead of tournament

There's not been much fanfare here ahead of Israel's hosting of the European Under-21 Championship this summer, but headlines were finally made at the weekend - just not for the reasons tournament organisers would have wanted.

For several months, a campaign by pro-Palestinian sympathisers demanding Israel be stripped of the rights to host the tournament has been trying to grab public attention. This culminated in last Friday's dramatic scenes at the UEFA Congress: having been part of a protest outside the Grosvenor Hotel in Mayfair earlier in the day, three protesters infiltrated a dinner being held for top officials at Old Billingsgate. A man and a woman chanted slogans at the gathered guests from the stage, while another stood behind president Michel Platini waving a flag. Two people were arrested.

On Tuesday, a letter from a group including former Tottenham striker Fredi Kanoute and Archbishop Desmond Tutu was published in the Guardian blasting UEFA for their "total insensitivity to the blatant and entrenched discrimination inflicted on Palestinian sportsmen and women by Israel". Again, European football's governing body was asked to move the tournament - even though it gets underway next week.

Politics and football rarely mix in such dramatic fashion, particularly in western Europe. UEFA were never likely to be swayed from their decision, and certainly not at this late stage (general secretary Gianni Infantino insisted "football had to stay out of this") but the campaign's message was heard. However, in Israel itself, there was little mention.

It's very big for the IFA - it's everything for them. They worked hard to get the tournament, and were very happy when they managed to get it - and very surprised.
Allon Sinai

"The protests were reported in a minor way," said Allon Sinai, the Jerusalem Post's chief sports writer. "It was mentioned - but nothing more. Whether we hear from them again depends upon what opportunities they have. It's just a question of publicity."

Of greater importance to Sinai and Israeli citizens is the football itself - and this event marks a major milestone in the history of the beautiful game in the country.

English knowledge of Israeli football primarily lies with the likes of Yossi Benayoun and Tal Ben Haim, who are battling hard to help their nation reach World Cup 2014 in Brazil. Israel currently lie second in Group F, above Portugal, and they recently returned to FIFA's top-60 ranked nations again for the first time in 12 months. However, as recently as 2008, Israel were riding high in 15th spot (following a Euro 2008 qualifying campaign that saw them finish level on points with England). Even if they don't make it to Copacabana Beach next summer, they will be strong candidates to feature at the expanded Euro 2016 finals in France.

Israel's only previous World Cup appearance was at Mexico 1970, their progress to the final helped by the fact North Korea refused to play them and withdrew. The Koreans' attitude was symptomatic of the general mood of Asian Football Confederation members at the time and four years later, the issue came to a head with the decision made to expel the Israeli Football Association. The IFA looked west for acceptance and after a long wait (during which they were twice placed in the Oceania zone for World Cup qualifying), Israeli clubs were finally admitted into UEFA club competitions in 1992. Two years later, the association's transition was complete.

Significant improvement

Domestically, a significant move was made by the IFA in 1999 - the formation of an Israeli Premier League to improve the standards of the professional game. Maccabi Haifa have been the dominant force since then, winning seven titles, although it's the most successful club in Israeli football history, Maccabi Tel Aviv, who were recently crowned champions, powered by the goals of the prolific Eliran Atar and former Sunderland signing Rade Prica.

So with Israel being relatively new kids on our European football block, they are certainly appropriate hosts for the Under-21 tournament - but they also have decent pedigree at this level, having qualified for the finals in Holland in 2007 by stunning France in the play-offs. Members of that 2007 squad included defender Dekel Keinan, who played on these shores for Blackpool, Cardiff, Crystal Palace and Bristol City, and also former Chelsea striker Ben Sahar, who was loaned out to QPR, Sheffield Wednesday and then Portsmouth by the Blues.

They came close to making the last eight again in 2009 and also 2011 - but the greater prize from UEFA was the awarding of hosting duties.

"It's very big for the IFA - it's everything for them," said Sinai. "They worked hard to get the tournament, and were very happy when they managed to get it - and very surprised.

"If it's a success, it will reflect very well on (president Avi) Luzon and the whole association. There hadn't really been that much interest from the government until recently, but they've now pledged 3m shekels (about £500,000) to help with the organisation."

Interest building

With the tournament almost here - all eight squads have been announced, and the four venues (Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Netanya and Petah Tikva) prepared - interest is expected to build gradually throughout the next week.

Michel Platini with the trophy

"It's been kind of low key so far," said Sinai. "They've been working quite hard to create some buzz around it and it will be hyped more from next week. 90,000 tickets have been sold so far, so the stadiums are currently about half full."

The Israel U21 coach is the IFA president's nephew, Guy Luzon. Any suggestions of nepotism were put to bed long ago; in fact, Luzon has just been handed one of Belgian football's top jobs from next season, as coach of Standard Liege. His squad selection contains no big stars, and is truly representative of the nation, with six Arab-Israeli players among the ranks.

"That's nothing out of the ordinary for us," said Sinai. "It happens to be a reflection of the Arab size of the population, which is around 20%. The Under-21 team has played a big role, but the Under-17 and Under-15 teams have an even higher percentage. It's what we've come to expect."

Israel U21s face a tough challenge to get out of Group A - Italy and England are favourites to reach the semi-finals, while Norway could be a surprise package. But the opportunity to impress those visiting the country and tuned in on TV elsewhere is arguably more important. After such an eventful history, football in Israel now has its chance to shine - and the eyes of Europe will be watching.

Watch the England Under-21 team in action this summer only on Sky Sports, with live and exclusive coverage of the UEFA European U21 Championship - and for more updates in the build-up and during the tournament in Israel, follow Jon on Twitter at @jonboy79.

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