U-21 Shows Israel Unequipped to Handle High Level Soccer

Israel’s facilities are unsuitable for hosting a World Cup, Euro, Champions League final or even Europa League final.

Ilan Lior
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Ilan Lior

Amsterdam hosted the Europa League final between Chelsea and Benfica a month ago. What an experience, in no small part due to the fantastic organization by the Dutch.

True, it wasn’t the biggest or most glitzy competition in the world, not even in Europe. But they understood that soccer at this level isn’t just 90 minutes on the pitch. The organizers set up special facilities for the fans around the stadium. There were souvenir stores, bars, snack bars and stands with activities and prizes.

Hours before the final, the area outside the stadium was a happening place. Trains efficiently delivered tens of thousands of fans to the Amsterdam Arena. The atmosphere was wonderful. Reaching the stadium two hours before the opening whistle wasn’t enough to enjoy everything the event had to offer.

Around 90 minutes before the beginning of the under-21 Euro semifinal between Spain and Norway last Saturday night, the area near the Netanya stadium was dullsville. Many fans came early − not because of the special atmosphere but out of fear of getting stuck in traffic jams.

It was clear that no thought was put into the approaches to the stadium. No one greeted the fans. The Israel Football Association didn’t hire musicians or anyone to paint children’s faces. They didn’t invite photographers, didn’t set up food or drink stands, and didn’t offer contests or special deals.

There was just one small tent there, where a simple souvenir scarf was being sold at an exorbitant price. And some shirts were available at even more exorbitant prices. That’s it.

Where am I?

Israeli amateurism in organizing the under-21 tournament was apparent from the moment tickets went on sale. The sale opened at the end of March. Anyone who tried to order tickets during the first days for the games in Netanya discovered that on the website of the authorized ticket seller there was no map of the stadium.

“How can I know which ticket is closest to the center line?” I asked a ticket sales representative on the phone. She couldn’t help. After a few days I went to collect my tickets for the championship games in Netanya, but they weren’t available.

“We were unable to overcome a snag in the system,” someone explained to me. “Try again in a few days.” Oh well, I thought, it’s just a small screw-up.

The best tickets quickly ran out. Foreign fans who are not Hebrew speakers couldn’t obtain them. Over the first few days it was impossible to find a referral in English to the sales site, not even on the UEFA website.

Further on, it turned out that the Football Association had sold all the tickets to the championship in advance. Besides a few invitations to VIPs and cronies, no one set aside tickets for fans of the national team.

The Dutch said that after advancing to the semifinal they asked groups of fans to come to Israel, but to fly to Israel and stay outside the stadium without a ticket? There’s a limit to what people are willing to do for the under-21 Euro. They simply gave up. There were several empty seats in the stadium. That’s what happens when you give out tickets in a slew of deals to people who aren’t really interested in the tournament.

And maybe the Dutch did well by not coming and saving themselves sitting in traffic jams on the way to and from the stadium. There were 12,000 spectators at the Netanya stadium. That’s it. It’s a big event, but nothing exceptional. Still, it seems the Football Association and the police made every mistake possible. They promised to augment the trains and they didn’t; they promised efficient shuttles and didn’t come through.

Road to nowhere

On the way to the opening game between Israel and Norway, the shuttle from the Beit Yehoshua train station stood in a long traffic jam, like everybody else. After the game, hundreds of fans waited for the shuttle where it had dropped them off, and it simply never came. Ushers weren’t around, and the police had no idea what they were talking about.

Inside Moshava Stadium I was happy to see signs leading to the special exit for Highway 5. After 15 minutes of driving on an unpaved road, it turned out the exit led to a neighborhood and back all the way to the junction next to the stadium − simply pathetic.

The situation was much worse in Jerusalem. The area around Teddy Stadium remained a construction site throughout the tournament. The access road has been under repairs for a long time, the new southern section of stands lacks a roof. It was really as if the Euro had taken everyone by surprise.

As if that weren’t enough, the police closed traffic lanes leading to the stadium before the game. Is there any greater absurdity than this?

An acquaintance of mine tried to reach the Israel-England game and didn’t make it, so he gave up and turned around. Next to Pat Junction, near the stadium, he asked the police where he could park and board a shuttle. “There’s no such thing here,” an officer answered. Dejected, he went home and didn’t watch the game on television. His seat remained empty.

Luck actually played into my hands. An hour and a half before that game, I managed with great difficulty to crawl into the Malha Mall parking garage. An hour after the game I returned to my car. Another hour passed until dozens of other frustrated fans and I managed to get out of the garage into an endless traffic jam.

We have to give credit to IFA chairman Avi Luzon. He brought to Israel a tournament of the highest level. The soccer was wonderful, and the fans came in droves to watch the stars of the future. Isco, Lorenzo Insigne, Adam Maher and others totally delivered the goods.

But it’s doubtful we’ll see here a sporting event of this order in the future. Israel’s facilities are unsuitable for hosting a World Cup, Euro, Champions League final or even Europa League final. It’s a shame the Football Association was satisfied with merely holding a championship in Israel and didn’t make an effort to produce an unforgettable show.

Instead, the finishing was lacking and the organization was amateurish. That’s not the way to organize a Euro tournament.

Fans at the Euro under-21 soccer final in Israel last week. Credit: Nir Keidar

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