Transcending Soccer, European Under-21 Championship Kicks Off in Israel

The championship, which begins today in Netanya, is attracting interest in Israel − for once, for the right reasons.

With all due respect to the Israeli soccer coaches currently plying their trade in Belgium and Cyprus, to the players who have broken into the English and Spanish leagues and to the players’ agents who broker multi-million dollar deals, European soccer barely gives Israel a second thought.

For the most part, European soccer fans only think of Israel when their team − be it club or country − is playing against an Israeli team, or in the context of regional security concerns. Now all that has changed. There has been a buzz of late − and not just surrounding the calls for countries to boycott the European Under-21 Championship, which gets underway tonight in Netanya − but about the tournament itself and the fact that Israel was selected to host it.

Some would say that the continent-wide interest shown in recent weeks is rather surprising, since Under-21 teams rarely grab the headlines. And yet, this is still a major sporting event.

Over the past week, I have been contacted by more than two dozen journalists from all over Europe. Most of them come from countries which will be represented at the tournament, and some will have even come here to cover the matches firsthand. But I have also been contacted by sports writers from Belgium, Portugal and France, which did not qualify for the finals. The numbers speak for themselves: More than 300 foreign journalists will be on hand to cover the tournament.

“This is without doubt a tournament that we take very seriously,” says Bart Hinke, who writes about the Netherlands’ under-21 team for the Handelsblad newspaper. “There’s a lot of interest in this tournament back home, and especially in the Dutch team, of course.”

It is only natural that most of the interest comes from countries that are taking part. Israeli interest in the 2007 edition of the tournament, which Israel qualified for, was much greater than in 2006 or 2009. But this time, it appears that the interest transcends soccer. That, in part, is because of the fact that it is being held in Israel − which isn’t really in Europe and where the security situation is always fraught.

And, of course, there has been a wave of protest by Palestinians and their supporters, demanding that Israel be stripped of the right to host the tournament because of its treatment of Palestinians in general and Palestinian soccer players in particular.

Even Israeli-based foreign journalists, who know nothing about soccer, have started asking questions about the tournament − precisely because of the political and security implications, which have attracted as much attention as the tournament itself.
In addition to the journalists, several hundred fans have made their way from across Europe to Netanya, Jerusalem, Petah Tikva and Tel Aviv. Still, most European soccer fans will follow events on their television screens. In the past, the matches were aired on the Eurosport channel, but the rise in interest means that every country now has to bid for the broadcast rights independently.
While all 15 of the tournament’s matches will be shown in all of the participating countries, countries like Portugal, Sweden and Ukraine − which are not taking part − have also purchased the rights to show the games live. Even more surprising, perhaps, is that the tournament will also be aired across the globe, including on ESPN in the United States and the Caribbean, as well as in South America, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

It’s not clear whether this is because of the increased interest in all kinds of European soccer or whether in the soccer-starved summer months, the low cost of the broadcast rights made the package particularly appealing.

One of the reasons for the increased interest in the tournament is that, since 2007, it is held every two years. In the past it was held immediately after the end of the regular soccer season and was squeezed in before either the World Cup or the European Championships.

As one UEFA official put it, “people always want to watch soccer − and this is one month when there’s precious little to watch.”

It’s safe to assume that much of the interest from southeast Asia is gambling-based.

In addition to fans and journalists, scores of scouts will also attend the tournament. According to UEFA, more than 500 scouts have received accreditation for the tournament and most of them are expected to watch at least some of the games. While many of the players on display during the tournament are already established with major clubs, and teams like Real Madrid or Manchester United don’t need to be looking for diamonds in the rough at Under-21 tournaments, middle-sized clubs can certainly uncover their next big signing here − a semi-anonymous player from Norway or Russia, say, who they can continue to watch and whose progress they can monitor.

Judging by the number of tickets sold, there is also a great deal of interest in the tournament among Israeli soccer fans. Usually, the only games that are sold out at such tournaments are the host nation’s and the final; other games attract far fewer spectators. For this tournament, however, all of Israel’s games are already sold out, as are two of the Spanish team’s matches. The organizers believe that all the games will eventually be sold out and that ticket sales will far exceed those of previous tournaments.

Given the situation in Israel, the European Under-21 Championship is probably the largest sporting event we can hope to host any time soon. So let’s enjoy it.

AFP