Euro U-21 Championship: It’s Not Them, It’s Us

In contrast to many Israeli journalists who termed Euro 2013 a‘Luzon family affair,’ the 124,078 fans who filled the stadiums proved itwas everyone’s celebration. Some somber notes about Israeli sports journalists.

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On Thursday night UEFA published data about the Euro 2013 group stage. The numbers are impressive: 124,078 fans watched the games, an average of 10,400 per game. If we add the Saturday’s two semifinals and Tuesday’s final the number might reach 175,000 or even more.

On Thursday UEFA President Michel Platini had lunch with Israel Football Association President Avi Luzon in Caesarea. Platini told Luzon the European teams are very pleased with the organization of the tournament, and that the game at Teddy Stadium between England and Israel broke all attendance records for Euro U-21 games in the group stage. Luzon was obviously pleased: Some 27,000 fans attended that game.

These numbers reminded me of the negative headlines in the Israeli press ever since UEFA decided to hold the tournament in Israel. Some pundits claimed that the stadiums would be empty, that Israeli fans wouldn’t take any interest in the games involving foreign teams, and the IFA should brace itself for a huge embarrassment. Others doubted whether fans would even show up for Israel’s games and urged Luzon to convince UEFA to distribute free tickets to the games.

“I know Israeli soccer fans,” Luzon responded. “I promise you that the stands will be full in all the games. This will be a soccer celebration; we’ll show the world that we’re good at organizing such events and that Israeli fans love European soccer and get behind the Israeli team.”

Following the 4-0 defeat to Italy at Bloomfield Stadium, many believed that fewer than 10,000 fans would show up for Israel’s last game, against England.
On our way to Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium a good friend told me: “If 8,000 fans show up it will be considered a huge success.” I told him there would be at least 20,000 fans, but he only laughed.

I’ve been told that Amir Peleg wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth at the beginning of the tournament that this is a private Luzon family affair, not an all-Israeli soccer happening. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see Peleg in the press box at the games. True, the Luzon family is large, but doesn’t include 124,078 members.

All these pundits, who enjoy criticizing others from the office and hardly show up for league games, should at least attend the final: All the games were a wonderful experience, on the field and in the stands. Apart from the excellent organization − credit to IFA’s tournament director Ronen Hershko − the level of the teams and some breathtaking games, the fans made the tournament so successful.

Wonderful atmosphere

It’s impossible not to be enthusiastic watching tens of thousands of Israelis who arrived with their wives and children, wearing the shirts of the foreign teams. These fans are intelligent, well behaved and calm. The fact that parents didn’t fear violence and brought their children to the stands contributed to the wonderful atmosphere.
Yedioth Ahronoth opted to publish a feature dealing with Arcadi Gaydamak on the day the tournament began, an own-goal in a way, since the newspaper was one of the tournament’s sponsors. Avi Ratzon wrote in his Maariv column that he hopes the Israeli national team fails in the tournament, considering it a private Luzon affair belonging to Guy Luzon, Avi Luzon’s nephew.

I once asked Ratzon why he is always so negative, always picking fights with everyone. He answered: “If I write positively nobody will notice me, I’ll be forgotten.”
Pundits like Ratzon owe their readers proper disclosure: He was almost appointed to a job with excellent conditions in the IFA spokesman’s department. Avi Luzon’s eventual decision not to hire Ratzon led the journalist to respond in his columns. For some years now I haven’t met Ratzon in the press box at any game. Here in Israel, a journalist can write from home, without attending matches regularly. Ratzon, Peleg and some of their colleagues tend to harshly criticize all national team coaches, whether it’s Luis Fernandez, Eli Guttman or Dror Kashtan. I wonder if any of them ever attended a practice session conducted by one of these coaches.

Television commentator Meir Einstein came down hard on Guy Luzon for his celebration after the victory against England, which was, in effect, meaningless since the national team had already been eliminated. Need one remind Einstein of his own ecstatic outburst on air when Israel beat France in 1993, after Israel had already been effectively eliminated from its World Cup qualifying group? If he could go wild after a meaningless victory, how dare he condemn a coach who does the same thing?

When Eyal Berkovic praised the organization of the tournament on the Sport 5 television channel, former national team coach Shlomo Scharf objected. He recalled that he met an English journalist in Petah Tikva after one of the games who couldn’t find a cab to his hotel and had to travel by train. Scharf, who has probably attended several games in Europe, encountered the same difficulties in the most modern countries. I twice attended Real Madrid vs. Barcelona games, and had to walk 12 kilometers back to my hotel because I couldn’t find a taxi and the train service ends before the games’ final whistle. I walked together with thousands of fans − and I’m talking about Barcelona, a tourism and soccer capital.

Berkovic is actually one of the few local soccer pundits who often has an agenda, but he can also be fair. He was critical of the national U-21 team after the Norway game, praised its opening minutes against Italy, and all in all was appreciative of Guy Luzon’s achievement in the tournament. Berkovic sometimes reacts like a lunatic, but emerged as the sanest pundit in Israeli soccer at the moment.

Last Thursday a friend from Kiryat Gat called to invite me to his son’s wedding. As we chatted he told me that he was thrilled by the tournament. “You tell me,” he said, “you’re a sports’ journalist. What do they want from Guy Luzon? He’s an excellent coach, he got four points in the group stage, an achievement we’ll probably never repeat. So he went wild at the end of a game, so what? Because his name is Luzon? If he wasn’t part of the Luzon family all the journalists would deal with his achievement, not with his wild celebration.”

Guy Luzon can, indeed, be proud of his three-year term with the national U-21 team, but should certainly have refrained from attacking the press. True, some of the journalists had it coming, but after his final game in charge he should have celebrated the win and his achievement, and refrained from attacking the press. Sometimes it’s better to be wise than right. The press had indeed criticized him mercilessly after the Norway and Italy games, and he waited for the chance to hit back.

Still, the 52,000 fans who came to watch the team’s three games are an overwhelming vote of trust, as was the players’ trust and love for him after the final game. Still, like many others here, Guy Luzon too was overtaken by his emotions in a moment of ecstasy. What a shame.

Israeli players throwing coach Guy Luzon in the air after their 1-0 victory over England, June 2013Credit: Reuters

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