Soccer / U-21 European Championship

The Man Who Brought the U-21 European Championship to Netanya

Two days before the start of the Under-21 European Soccer Championship, Avi Luzon, the man behind it all, looks forward to hosting many more sporting events here.

Once he realized he wasn’t going to be able to persuade UEFA to hold a European Championship or the final of the Champions League in Israel, Avi Luzon turned his attention to bringing the Euro Under-21 Championship to the Holy Land.

Luzon, a member of a veritable soccer dynasty and head of the Israel Football Association, began campaigning for it more than four years ago.

“I shared my vision with several officials at the Union of European Football Associations, I spoke to the heads of some other football associations, and I started to work behind the scenes to bring the tournament to Israel,” he told Haaretz this week.

On Wednesday, he will be in the VIP section at the brand new municipal stadium in Netanya, where Israel will face Norway in the tournament’s opening game.

For two and half years, Luzon worked tirelessly in the corridors of UEFA to muster enough support in the vote on which nation would hold the tourney. He was a frequent visitor to UEFA headquarters in Switzerland, where his main goal was to get the president of the organization, Michel Platini, on board. When the vote was finally held some 18 months ago, Israel won, and Luzon’s grand project got the green light.

According to UEFA regulations, the host nation must appoint one person to take overall charge of the project and to work closely with UEFA. “I didn’t doubt for a second that the right person for the job was Ronen Hershko,” says Luzon. Hershko is in charge of the technical elements of all Israel’s national soccer teams, yet remains almost anonymous among Israel soccer fans.

Since being appointed by Luzon, Hershko has left the employ of the IFA and now works directly for UEFA, which also pays his salary.

“As far as UEFA is concerned, this is the second-most important tournament for national teams on the continent,” he says. “It is subject to exactly the same rules and regulations as the European Championship and the Champions League. Anyone who knows anything about UEFA knows that nothing is left to chance. The rulebook for this tournament has hundreds of pages and nothing can be changed − no matter how seemingly trivial.”

The problem, however, was that much of what appears in that rulebook was not exactly written with Israel in mind.

A long list of demands

The first stage was getting the various stadiums up to European standards, once UEFA had approved Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium, Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa, Petah Tikva’s Moshava Stadium and the new stadium in Netanya. The approval, however, was partial: Hershko was handed a folder full of demands for changes, improvements and upgrades. Every few months, UEFA would send its stadium team back to Israel to keep tabs on progress.

“They really looked at every tiny detail,” he says. “For example, there’s even a regulation size for the locker rooms. We had to break through some adjoining walls to meet their standards.”

Next on UEFA’s to-do list was the issue of hotels. The Israeli FA was given a long list of conditions that the hotels would have to meet in order to be able to host the seven visiting national teams. Hotels had to be within a certain range of the stadiums and training facilities and they had to be able to offer guests the use of meeting rooms.

UEFA even timed how long it took to get from the hotel to the stadium at rush hour. In total, 14 hotels were approved, after which the heads of the participating associations selected which hotel their delegation would be staying at.

Then, they sent in their specific demands regarding menus and the times meals were served. All of the delegations demanded that any loud entertainment that the hotels normally hosted must be canceled during their stay.

While there are some in Israel who are looking down their noses at this tournament, UEFA is taking it very seriously. Television rights to the tournament’s 15 matches have been sold to 140 countries, including Sky Sports in the United Kingdom, RAI in Italy and the state-run German broadcaster, all of which have built special studios in Israel.

Most of the sponsors of the tournament are the same companies that sponsor the Champions League, such as Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Kia and Sharp. According to UEFA rules, any company that is not an official sponsor cannot be shown on television during the games − which means that Pepsi and Burger Ranch will be kept well out of sight. In the contract that the IFA and UEFA signed with the respective municipalities, they undertook to remove any non-approved advertising from the stadiums.

As of yesterday, 170,000 tickets had been sold for the tournament. In the last Under-21 championship, which was held in Denmark, a total of 90,000 were sold for the entire tournament. Most of the incoming fans will be from England, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy.

Among the VIPs expected to attend are Italian national team coach Cesare Prandelli, the Dutch coach Louis van Gaal, England manager Roy Hodgson and former star players Gunter Netzer, Lothar Matthaus and Matthias Sammer, as well as politicians from across the continent. Perhaps most importantly from the players’ perspective, there will also be more than 100 scouts from some of the top teams in the world.

Hundreds of volunteers have been brought in to help keep order during the tournament. Medical students will provide first aid when needed and journalism students will even be on hand to help the plethora of newsmen and women who will report back on events here.

“A tournament of this size required a huge amount of manpower,” says Hershko. “It’s a win-win situation; some of the students are getting university credit for volunteering.”

Even before the first game kicks off, however, Luzon is already looking ahead to his next great project: hosting the final of the Europa League in three years and, he hopes, the final of the Champions League.

“Everyone will see what a fantastic tournament we can host,” he says, “and that it’s possible to combine soccer, security, sunshine and golden beaches. I believe that this tournament will be our entry ticket into the European elite and that we will host many more top matches and tournaments here.”

Sharon Bukov