The draw was held Friday for the preliminary rounds of next season's two main European soccer competitions, with three Israeli teams taking part in the Champions League and the UEFA Cup.
In Geneva, league champion Maccabi Haifa learned that it will play either Belshina Bobruisk of Belarus, or Northern Ireland's Portadown, in the second qualifying round of the Champions League. In the UEFA Cup, Hapoel Tel Aviv plays Partizani of Albania, while city rival Maccabi Tel Aviv faces Levadia Tallinn of Estonia.
Even though UEFA, the game's European governing body, has yet to make any official announcement regarding this season's competition, Israeli teams are assuming that a ruling from last season, banning the hosting of international games in Israel because of the volatile security situation, will remain in force for the 2002-2003 season. The "home" legs of each of the three teams' games are likely to be moved from Israel to Cyprus.
The first leg of the UEFA Cup qualifying round will be played on August 15 (Hapoel Tel Aviv at "home" to Partizani, Maccabi away to Tallinn), with the return matches to be played two weeks later. The second qualifying round of the Champions League sees Maccabi Haifa "host" Portadown or Belshina on July 31, and travel to Belarus one week later.
Anything other than victory for all three of the Israeli teams would be considered a disaster. Maccabi Haifa, having avoided the strongest teams in the first qualifying round, will either face the Belarus champion, Belshina Bobruisk, which is languishing half-way down the local league standings, or Portadown, a team of part-timers from Northern Ireland.
Haifa simply cannot afford to slip up for the second season in a row. Last season, Haifa was denied a money-spinning match against Liverpool, after using a suspended player for a game against Haka of Finland. Haifa claimed it did not receive a fax informing them that Walid Badir was ineligible, and UEFA disqualified the Israeli champion from the rest of that year's competition. This time Haifa needs to beat Belshina to set up a potential clash with Manchester United, Barcelona, AC Milan, Inter Milan or Newcastle United.
If officials of Levadia Tallinn, Maccabi Tel Aviv's opponent in the UEFA Cup, are to be believed, the Estonian team's annual budget is about the same as that of a team in the Israeli third division.
Hapoel Tel Aviv is the only Israeli team that could face some difficulties, against a stubborn Albanian team with several Brazilian and Nigerian players on call. Nonetheless, the Israeli team, which reached the quarterfinal of last season's competition, should have the upper hand.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now