European soccer's governing body UEFA announced yesterday that European club matches involving Israeli teams would continue to be played at neutral venues outside Israel until at least mid-August, meaning that Maccabi Tel Aviv will not be able to host the return leg of its Champions League second qualifying round clash with Zilina in Israel.

UEFA said that the issue would be given further consideration and that Israel's national team home games would also be played on neutral venues for the moment.

In March 2002, UEFA suspended all competitive European matches from taking place in Israel because of security fears in the region. Yesterday's decision to maintain the ban came after a meeting of UEFA's Emergency Panel and follows discussions between UEFA, the Israel Football Association (IFA) and senior Israeli politicians, including Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

Hopes had been high that the ban would be lifted after Shalom met recently with UEFA secretary-general Gerhard Aigner and informed him that the renewal of the peace process

had brought stability back to the country, and that security could be guaranteed. Shalom brought with him letters of support from eight European foreign ministers, including

Germany's Joschka Fischer, Franco Frattini of Italy and Ana Palacio of Spain, and the European Union also empowered its president Silvio Berlusconi to call on UEFA to lift the ban.

But although the four-member Emergency Panel - comprised of UEFA president Lennart Johansson, vice president Senes Erzik, treasurer Mathieu Sprengers and executive board member Henri Roemer - noted the positive developments in the region, it said that more time was needed to evaluate the situation.

"UEFA told the IFA that the Emergency Panel had taken note of the recent political developments in the region and the relatively peaceful situation," UEFA said in a statement. "However, the panel said it was of the view that an evaluation could only be made when a certain period of time had elapsed and that it would reconsider the matter in mid-August."

Although the statement said that more time was needed to evaluate the situation, if things remain quiet over the next two weeks, the chances of the ban being lifted are considered to be high. UEFA informed the IFA that if its the ban is lifted in mid-August, Israeli clubs will be able to host games in Israel from the first group stage of the Champions League and the first round of the UEFA Cup.

The English press speculated yesterday that the decision to keep the ban in place was partly motivated by a desire to express the organization's independence in the wake of political pressure imposed by Israeli and European leaders. But both in Israel and on Fleet Street, a more sinister explanation was offered - pressure exerted by Chelsea, which will face Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Champions League if the latter gets past Zilina, to delay the decision in order to avoid making the trip to Israel.

It looks like Chelsea was pulling the strings, says Mark Ogden of the Daily Telegraph. "Since the draw was made, it has been obvious that Chelsea isn't interested in flying to Israel, both because of the security situation and because of their humiliating defeat at the hands of Hapoel Tel Aviv in the UEFA Cup.

"I'm sure that if Maccabi Tel Aviv had drawn a Scottish, Belgium or Czech side it would have received the okay to play in Israel. UEFA didn't want to aggravate a club with the kind of financial clout that Chelsea has. They have a lot of money and a lot of influence in UEFA and it seems the European football federation chose not to get on the wrong side of them," Ogden said.

Maccabi Tel Aviv chairman Loni Herzikovic dismissed the speculation that Chelsea was behind the decision, but accused UEFA of making a political decision. "UEFA simply isn't brave enough to admit it was a political decision. If they think Budapest is safer than Tel Aviv, they're wrong... If Maccabi Tel Aviv gets past Zilina, the decision will cost us $500,000."