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Maccabi Haifa's home games in the Champions League starting later this month will all be held in Nicosia, UEFA finally decided yesterday, dashing any slim hopes Israeli soccer fans had of seeing top-quality soccer here.

Haifa had sent formal letters to its three opponents in group F - Manchester United, Bayer Leverusen and Olympiakos Piraeus - asking them to play their games in Israel at the National Stadium in Ramat Gan.

The clubs all replied politely that they were following UEFA instructions by declining the offer, as the current directive from European soccer's governing body is that Israel is still too dangerous a place to play.

By making their decision yesterday, UEFA slammed the door on any chances of Israel seeing David Beckham and co., at least for the first group stage. In the unlikely event that Haifa advances to the next stage of the competition, the decision could be reviewed, but for the first three home matches, at least, that will not happen.

Haifa also exercised its right of appeal on the one-match ban on Ayegbeni Yakoubu, who was sent off in the 3-3 draw against Sturm Graz. The appeal will be heard by UEFA's disciplinary committee tomorrow.

Haifa claims the referee was mistaken when he showed Yakoubu the red card. A lifting of the ban appears very unlikely, which means the influential striker will miss Haifa's high-profile debut in the Champions League at Old Trafford on September 18.

Haifa officials estimated yesterday that the 25,000-seat GSP stadium in Nicosia would be full to capacity for both the home games against Manchester United and Bayer Leverkusen, while over 10,000 would travel to watch the game with Olympiakos.

Haifa's first-choice goalkeeper, Nir Davidovich, yesterday underwent an operation to mend his cruciate ligament. He is expected to be back in training only in about six months' time.

Manchester tickets snapped up

Tour packages to Haifa's game in Manchester on September 18 are selling like hot cakes, with almost all the 3,300 places originally allocated to the game already taken.

Another 1,000 tickets will be issued if required and, according to current demand, even they will probably not be enough to satisfy supporters.

Packages including a return flight to Manchester and three-night stay start at $599, while tickets are priced at between 30-35 pounds.

Haifa expects some 5,000 fans to be at the game, almost all of whom will travel from Israel.

Maccabi, Hapoel TA to host games in Sofia

Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Tel Aviv will host their respective UEFA Cup opponents, Boavista (Portugal) and Kaernten (Austria), in Sofia due to UEFA's ruling that Israel is off-limits to foreign clubs.

UEFA decided that Maccabi, which must host its game next week, will do so on September 19 at the CSKA Stadium, rather than at the originally designated Levski Sofia Stadium, at which it played two weeks ago. This is because Levski is hosting Danish side Brondby at its stadium that night. The match has been moved back because of Yom Kippur.

Hapoel will host Kaernten in Sofia on October 3, after the Austrians, who originally said they would agree to play in Israel, demanded $200,000 for doing so.

The switch of venues saves many headaches, because the club's president, far-right Freedom Party leader Joerg Haider, had wanted to travel with the team, but is barred from entering Israel by government decree.

In the UEFACup, the governing body has indicated that it may be prepared to consider Israel as a venue for future rounds on an individual basis, assuming that the security situation improves.