Soccer / U21 Euro / Despite security concerns, UEFA keeps tourney in TA
Israel draws England, Italy and Norway
The president of Israel's football association said yesterday that there was never any doubt the country could host next year's European under-21 football championship, even when Palestinian militants were bombarding Israel with rockets during heavy fighting earlier this month.
Avi Luzon also expressed full confidence that the tournament, one of the highest-profile international sporting events ever held in Israel, would proceed safely and smoothly.
"There was never any fear that the championship wouldn't happen here," Luzon told Israel TV, adding that UEFA officials "didn't even raise it for a moment."
Luzon spoke on the sidelines of the draw for next June's tournament. Israel was drawn to play England, Norway and Italy in its group, while defending champion Spain is top-seeded in a group that includes the Netherlands, Russia and Germany.
The draw was conducted by UEFA in Tel Aviv less than two weeks after the coastal city came under rocket fire during eight days of fighting between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
Sporting events in southern Israel were canceled, and in one instance, sirens disrupted a match in the Tel Aviv area, sending spectators rushing to the exits for cover. Security concerns also led football officials to postpone a Europa League match between Israel's Hapoel Kiryat Shmona and Spanish club Athletic Bilbao. The match was made up yesterday in Haifa, with Bilbao winning 2-0.
Luzon said the only time UEFA officials had raised any security concerns with him was after a bus bombing in Tel Aviv wounded 27 people last week. He said UEFA President Michel Platini immediately stepped in and offered to join Israeli and Spanish football officials at Wednesday night's match. "I think that is the best show of faith," he said.
Football coaches attending Wednesday evening's draw expressed confidence in Israel's ability to protect players and fans in the tournament.
"We have no concerns and we have complete trust in our Israeli friends," said Italian coach Devis Mangia.
Norway's coach, Per Joar Hansen, said his team was well aware of the "big problems" in Israel. "Of course the situation here isn't good. But we aren't worried," he said. "We aren't interested in politics, we just want to play. And we're confident we'll be able to do that safely."
In Israel, Spain will head a stellar group that includes the winners of the past four editions of a tournament which traditionally builds the reputation of star prospects.
Juan Mata was named best player at the 2011 finals in Denmark, weeks before Chelsea agreed to pay a reported 30 million euros (then $43 million ) to sign the Spain winger from Valencia.
Germany's winning team in 2009 featured goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and playmaker Mesut Oezil who one year later helped the senior team reach the World Cup semifinals.
Previous tournament stars include Czech Republic goalkeeper Petr Cech (2002 ), Italy midfielder Andrea Pirlo (2000 ) and Portugal playmaker Luis Figo (1994 ).
Israel has hosted numerous World Cup qualifiers, Davis Cup matches and European basketball playoff games.
Israeli coach Guy Luzon, a former player and nephew of the football association president, also insisted there would be no security concerns at the UEFA tournament. "Israel is one the safest places in the world. I don't think this will be an issue for our players and fans. We have some of the best security in the world," he said.