Hapoel Tel Aviv will face a difficult opponent in the second qualifying round of the UEFA Championships League. The Premier League champion and State Cup holder will play against Bosnian side FK Zeljeznicar, the governing body of European soccer announced yesterday from its headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland.
The Sarajevo-based club - whose supporters are notoriously rowdy and often violent - is one of the most formidable clubs that Hapoel could have expected to play against. The team, which is coached by Amar Osim, the son of legendary Bosnian coach Ivica Osim, sports a roster of versatile players from the former Yugoslavia.
Osim himself is quite familiar with the qualifying stage of the Champions League. In 2002, Zeljeznicar reached the third round of the draw before bowing out to England's Newcastle United.
Zeljeznicar captured one league title in the former Yugoslavia before the country's disintegration. It then went on to grab four league championships in Bosnia Herzegovina. Its most impressive finish in Europe was in 1984-85, when it reached the semifinals of the UEFA Cup, only to lose to Real Madrid in the last two minutes of the match.
The team's modest budget (1 million euros ), which is subsidized by the local tobacco industry, requires it to sell its players often. Zeljeznicar recently sent one of its star players, Samir Bekric, to South Korea.
Perhaps the most prominent name on Zeljeznicar's roster is Mirsad Beslija, an experienced midfielder whose resume includes 29 appearances for the Bosnian national team. The 30-year-old has also played for Belgian club Genk and Scottish side Hearts.
Ibrahim Sehic, the goalkeeper of Bosnia's national U-21 team, is the youngest player ever to be named captain in the club's history. Zeljeznicar also recently signed Macedonian defender Goran Gancev, while it has high hopes for the giant Serbian midfielder Milan Culum. Hapoel will also have to keep a wary eye on attack-minded midfielder Edin Visca. Zeljeznicar is the best supported team in Bosnia. The club's most die-hard supporters are known as "The Maniacs," who are known to create a hostile environment for any visiting team.
Hapoel Tel Aviv will host Zeljeznicar for the first leg of the qualifier in mid-July.
Hapoel's inter-city rivals Maccabi Tel Aviv and Bnei Yehuda will also look to make a mark against foes from the continent.
Mitch Goldhar's band of millionaires will meet the winner of UE Santa Coloma and FK Mogren in the second qualifying round. Santa Coloma, which reached Andorra's top league for the first time in 2008, is an amateur team that Maccabi should have no trouble with. As for Mogren, the last time it faced an Israeli club was two years ago, when it lost to Ironi Kiryat Shmona in the qualifying stage of the UEFA Cup.
Bnei Yehuda will be the first Israeli club to take the pitch in a European tournament when it travels to Armenia to face FC Ulisses for the first leg of their first qualifying round encounter.
The game is scheduled to take place on July 1, while the second leg will be held one week later at Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa.
Should Dror Kashtan's club overcome its first hurdle, it would then face Irish side Shamrock Rovers, the most successful club in Ireland's soccer history.
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