In Friday's draw for the first round of the UEFA Cup in Monaco, Israel's two representatives in the competition - Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Tel Aviv - emerged with highly contrasting tasks.
Hapoel will face Austrian team Kaernten, while Maccabi must play Portuguese giants Boavista. The games will be held on September 19 and October 3.
Despite the fact that the draw has handed Maccabi Tel Aviv a much more challenging task than Hapoel Tel Aviv, most of the attention in the coming few weeks will focus on Austrian side Kaernten, rather than Boavista. Most Israeli soccer fans have never even heard of Kaernten, but the team's president, far-right Austria Freedom Party leader Joerg Haider, is well-known enough to attract all the headlines.
Sources in the Austrian media said Friday that Haider, who is officially boycotted by Israel and is not allowed to enter the country, could try and force a political move by asking to accompany his team to Israel, despite a ban on international games in Israel, imposed six months ago by UEFA.
Haider, who took over as Kaernten president just two years ago, did so for purely political reasons. Kaernten, which is playing only its second season in the Austrian Bundesliga, is considered to be something of a rising star in Austrian soccer - much in the same way as Haider is in the political arena.
Haider himself takes little interest in the team's on-field performances, but he is sure to be present for a sporting event with such political overtones as a game against an Israeli team.
Haider said Friday that he welcomed the opportunity to face an Israeli team. "It's going to be a fascinating encounter," he told the official Kaernten website, "against a team with rich international experience. I am happy with the draw, but in purely sporting terms, it is going to be very tough."
In terms of professional superiority, there is little doubt that Hapoel Tel Aviv should overcome Kaernten. Even if, as expected, Hapoel plays its "home" leg in Cyprus, the Austrians should not prove to be too big a hurdle for Hapoel.
According to Hapoel Tel Aviv owner Rafi Agiv, his side's draw is "very comfortable."
Hapoel beat Chelsea FC in the UEFA Cup last season and Agiv said: "I find the draw very comfortable because we have been paired [with a team] that is not of one of the strongest. We had a lot of luck against Chelsea last season but that won't happen every season, so all we can do is hope."
As far as Maccabi is concerned, the task ahead is more than a stern one. Boavista represents everything that Israeli teams most hate in an opponent: fast-paced, always pressing and, despite that fact that it boasts no huge stars, it is a team in the full sense of the word - organized and well-trained.
Maccabi's chances of eliminating Boavista are slim, especially given the fact that the Portuguese side rarely loses at home.
Boavista's club secretary, Paulo Goncalves, said after the draw that "we never expect any easy games, even if the away tie is to be played outside Israel. Maccabi Tel Aviv is a very strong team, with a lot of history. They finished third in the Israeli league last season, so we will have to be alert. We will play our regular style of game - applying pressure all over the pitch. I still believe that we have been handed a fairly comfortable opponent, so we should make it to the second round of the competition."
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