FIFA president Sepp Blatter yesterday decided to postpone Sunday's Israel-Austria World Cup qualifier in Ramat Gan to a date as yet unspecified.
Blatter acted swiftly with the formal backing of FIFA's emergency committee after the Siberia Airlines tragedy yesterday, three days after soccer's world governing body had originally decided to let the game go ahead as planned despite Austrian requests to have it moved to a neutral venue.
The Austrian FA turned to FIFA immediately upon hearing of the tragedy asking it to reconsider its decision due to the "serious deterioration of the situation in Israel." Blatter personally accepted their request and informed both sides of his decision.
In a phone conversation with with Gavri Levy, Blatter proposed November 5 as a new date for the match and promised that it would be held only in Israel. The date is not final, however, and Levy will meet Blatter and with Austrian FA chairman Beppo Mauhart in Prague on Thursday to finalize the plans.
Mauhart said that the question of a neutral venue is not relevant. "No matter where Israel plays there is a security threat and a need for extra security," he said.
The postponement, say most experts, may be the only thing which could save Otto Baric's side from almost certain defeat and with it the loss of a chance to reach the World Cup finals.
Mauhart said that he did not want the nine players back in the team, but there are some who still hope that he can be persuaded to change his mind for the crucial game. The postponement could also cause pressure on both the Israeli and Austrian players, as whoever finishes second in the group will have to play against Turkey in the playoffs within only a few days. Many of the players in both sides are also involved in UEFA Cup fixtures on November 1.
If the proposed date is chosen, this could cause an unprecedented clutter of three or four international matches within the space of a fortnight.
The IFA is worried that FIFA's decision could cause a chain reaction in UEFA which will decide to move Maccabi and Hapoel Tel Aviv's home fixtures in the UEFA Cup to a neutral venue such as happened with Glasgow Rangers' game against Anjei Makhachkala of Dagestan which was played as a lone fixture in Warsaw.
Revivo: I don't think they want us
The national team members went down to the dining room at their training camp hotel in Caesarea where coach Richard Nielsen waited with a glum look on his face. He told them in a quiet voice of the postponement of the game. He then decided to send everybody home and to disperse the players.
At a hastily called press conference, Nielsen said he did not blame FIFA or UEFA for what had happened. "They have their own responsibility, maybe they have information which is not at our disposal. I am sorry, the players are in excellent shape and I'm certain that we'll be able to win whenever the new date is set for the match," he said.
"As far as I'm concerned, it makes no difference when the match will be played, we'll be ready. It doesn't matter whether it's in winter or in summer, whether it's cold or hot or whether we have to play in moonlight, my players know that under these circumstances they will have to get the best out of themselves."
Haim Revivo said he hoped that the decision would not set a precedent. "I don't know whether FIFA and UEFA even want us to get to the finals in Japan and South Korea, it would cause too many headaches for them," he said.
"I'm not angry at the Austrians. They want to postpone, perhaps even have the game canceled because this would be the best scenario for them," the Fenerbahce star continued.
"We received the news from the coach with some surprise, and also with sadness. There were Israelis on that flight, but I don't know whether the plane was downed due to an accident or a terror attack. I was nevertheless sure that the game would go ahead on Sunday. But I'm sure it was canceled due to the Austrians, who pressured FIFA into their decision which does not make any sense to me," he said. He added that he was also very upset at the terrorist attack in Afula.
Captain Tal Banin said there was no certainty that the game would even take place when a new date was set. "Unexpected things happen in life. It's very sad for all of us, but there is also a sense of disappointment from the postponement."
Eyal Berkovic said he was greatly disappointed by the decision. "This is the most disappointing news I've ever had during my time in the national team. It is a great pity, because the team was ready and had very high morale. Still, there are more important things, worse things that happen."
Avi Nimni expressed similar sentiments. "I'm very disappointed. I can see the same feeling in the faces of my friends, they're all very disappointed and now we'll have to begin preparing all over again. We're all looking forward to beating Austria, no matter when the game takes place."
The Austrian FA held an impromptu press conference yesterday which soon appeared to turn into a victory celebration.
Austrian FA chairman Beppo Mauhart said the pressure which his body had put on FIFA had eventually borne fruit. "I told Blatter that under the present circumstances, and following the events of the past days, nobody could expect us to travel to Israel," he said. "I am proud we were even able to put together a team that volunteered to play there."
He described the downing of the Siberian airliner yesterday as "shocking and frightening" and said it would have been tough to play so soon after such an event. But he also had harsh words for players who pulled out of the team citing their fears. "I don't ever want to see the nine players who pulled out in the Austrian national side," he added.
Austrian coach Otto Baric appeared greatly relieved. "There is no justification in playing there under the present circumstances. Every day something happens there. Maybe this is normal for Israelis, it certainly is not normal for Austrians," he said.
But Baric also admonished the players who had pulled out of the side: "They threw me to the dogs, such a thing could happen only in Austria, not anywhere else," he added.
Austrian captain Andreas Herzog said that he was pleased with the decision. "The last days have been very difficult, we became more and more worried by the situation."
He said he felt for the Israeli people after such tragedy. "It would have been very difficult to play after such a tragedy, impossible. I feel very bad for the Israeli players - they are exemplary sportsmen, our hearts are with them but there can be no sporting contest in such circumstances," he said
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now