The debate over the importance of the under-21 European soccer championship isn’t really relevant. But what's clear is that we haven’t enjoyed a tournament of national teams this much for a long time, and it all happened right here, on our home turf.
We’re not talking here about junior leagues filled with players that never make if off the bench in the major clubs: The under-21 teams who starred in Israel over the past two weeks were full of players already playing the Real Thing, including Isco (Malaga), Thiego Alcantara (Barcelona) and David de Gea (Atletico Madrid, Manchester United), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli), Marco Verratti (Paris St. Germain) and the Netherlands’ Georginio Wijnaldum (PSV Eindhoven).
These players and their teammates played aggressively, scoring three goals per game on average, the most since 2004; at least one goal was scored in every match. We watched fantastic ball movement and technique, and not only among the Spaniards. In addition, there’s something real and raw in a tournament of young players. Some of them are on their way to becoming millionaires and are stars in the making, but the joy of the Spanish bench after every goal in the finals was something very pure.
There are failures in the tournament as well, but you have to differentiate among them. There's the style of the English, for example, which beside its great name has a foggy future when it comes to national soccer teams. Their recently fired manager, Stuart Pearce, was justifiably released. Perhaps the recently dedicated academy for the British national teams will change the picture in another decade.
There are also failures which are totally acute, such as that of Germany, which came with especially young players (imagine if Ilkay Gundogan, Mario Gotze, Mats Hummels and their pals had played, Spain would have had a much harder time). Despite being eliminated, there’s no doubt about the country's bright future.
Overall we saw excellent players, quality and aggressive soccer, a deserving champion and an exceptional final. It’s hard to ask for more, assuming we’re not talking about Guy Luzon. Michel Platini, the UEFA president, was complimentary, Avi Luzon, head of the Israel Football Association, was proud, and overall the two organizations have every reason to be satisfied.
Yes, there were tickets sold whose buyers didn’t show up (even though the number of spectators broke all records for European youth championships and proved the hunger of Israeli fans for good soccer) and yes, there were Israelis who sat where they didn’t belong (they are Israelis, after all), and sure, there were complaints about the concession stands. But in the big picture, I wish other major public events in Israel reach the bar set by this tournament.
What did bother me, though, was the security arrangement. While bags were examined in Bloomfield, in the Moshava, Netanya and Teddy Stadium, there wasn’t any security check, which is usually a given at any mediocre sporting event around the world. It was strange.
The success of the under-21 Euro proved again that even in this country of sloppy work called Israel, you can pull things off. The difference between the Euro and the Premier League, for example, is like the difference between the logistics of the Gaza disengagement and the Second Lebanon War. Craziness usually rules here, but when there’s good will, focus, proper planning and someone responsible supervising from above, you can put on some beautiful productions.
Of course, all of this doesn't mean that we'll soon be hosting a Champions League final or one of the Euro 2020 groups. First of all, there is no suitable stadium in Israel for such games, despite the enormous progress made in Israeli stadiums. More importantly, Platini, a friend of Israel, will likely not be in his position in another two years. Israel will not have as good a friend in his successor, no matter who it is.
Perhaps the time will come when a Europa League final will come here. It would be nice but not that exciting. What’s important now is to try to capitalize on the good things that happened here and use the momentum to push forward with, for example, the destruction of the Stalinist stadium in Ramat Gan and replacing it with a new facility in the style of Teddy or Haifa.
Most importantly, Israel has to decide to invest in its youth and its coaches. That’s what Spain and others did, and it is the main thing that will determine our future.
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