Amid ISIS Threat, Israel National Soccer Team Defeats Albania Under Heavy Security

Grand Mufti of Albania's Muslims welcomes Israeli soccer team after match was moved due to security concerns.

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Israeli's Eran Zahavi celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the World Cup 2018 qualifier match against Albania in Elbasan, November 12, 2016.
Israeli's Eran Zahavi celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the World Cup 2018 qualifier match against Albania in Elbasan, November 12, 2016. Credit: Gent Shkullaku, AFP

Hundreds of security guards kept watch amid fears of an Islamic State-inspired attack as Israel's national soccer team took to the field and beat Albania 3-0 in a World Cup qualifier Saturday.

Though the Albanians had the home field advantage, many locals avoided the game due to security fears and their team eventually paid the price. After dominating the first minutes of the game, Israel's Bibras Natkho sent a long ball through the Albanian defense, finding striker Eran Zehavi and leaving him alone with the goalie, who tripped him up, giving Israel an easy penalty and Zehavi his first goal of the game.

Picking up momentum, the Israeli team held the ball for the majority of the first half, but failed to score another goal.

Shortly after the beginning of the second half, a second penalty was awarded to Israel after the Albanian goalkeeper head-butted Zehavi, earning him a red card. But Zehavi failed to score from the spot after the replacement goalie managed to block his shot.

After 66 minutes, Maor Buzaglo, who took to the pitch only a few minutes earlier, sent a long ball into the penalty area, which bounced off of Israeli midfielder Daniel Einbinder and then found its way into the Albanian goal.

Albania's Odise Roshi, right, fights for the ball with Israel's Rami Gershon during their World Cup Group G qualifying soccer match at Elbasan Arena stadium, in Elbasan, Albania, on Saturday, Nov.12, 2016.
Albania's Bekim Balaj, right, fights for the ball with Israel's Eran Zahavi, during the World Cup Group G qualifying soccer match between Albania and Israel, at Elbasan Arena stadium, in Elbasan, Albania, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016.
Albania's Odise Roshi (L) vies with Israeli's Dan Einbinder during the World Cup 2018 qualifier football match Albania versus Israel at the Elbasan Arena stadium in Elbasan on November 12, 2016.
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Albania's Odise Roshi, right, fights for the ball with Israel's Rami Gershon during their World Cup Group G qualifying soccer match at Elbasan Arena stadium, in Elbasan, Albania, on Nov.12, 2016.Credit: Hektor Pustina / AP
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Albania's Bekim Balaj, right, fights for the ball with Israel's Eran Zahavi, during the World Cup Group G qualifying soccer match between Albania and Israel, at Elbasan Arena stadium, Nov. 12, 2016. Credit: Hektor Pustina / AP
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Albania's Odise Roshi (L) vies with Israeli's Dan Einbinder during the World Cup 2018 qualifier football match Albania versus Israel at the Elbasan Arena stadium in Elbasan on November 12, 2016. Credit: Gent Shkullaku / AFP

Now facing a disadvantaged Albanian team, Israel went in for the kill by sending in Tomer Hemed and Eliran Atar. Towards the end of the game, Zehavi sent Atar for a long run past the defensive line for his first goal in the national uniform and earning Israel a much needed win. It was Israel's most substantial win abroad since its legendary triumph over France in 1993.

Peaceful Albania

The religious leader of Albania's Muslim community welcomed the Israeli team ahead of the Israeli victory.

Grand Mufti Skender Brucaj used his Facebook page on Saturday to wish "sportsmen and guests from Israel a calm and peaceful stay in the Albanian land!"

Some 2,000 police surrounded the stadium before the match, with extensive checks on supporters going to the Group G match.

Albanian special policemen take part in a security briefing at the Elbasan Arena stadium before the match between Albania and Israel, in Elbasan on November 12, 2016.Credit: Gent Shkullaku, AFP

Albanian police say they took extreme steps to secure the qualifier. Small shops, coffee bars, and other businesses near the stadium were closed and The main road between the match venue Elbasan and the capital Tirana was closed three hours ahead of the match.

Fans were advised not to bring fireworks, bottles, big or racist banners and anything metal, including home or car keys.

Brucaj said he was proud of Albania's "high human values, that of generosity, and religious tolerance and harmony."

"Proud of our predecessors, Albanian Muslims, believers and generous ones who sheltered thousands of Israelis at their homes during World War II, turning into the only country in Europe with more Israelis after the war than before it started," he said.

Mergim Mavraj, playing for Albania and a Muslim, also welcomed Israel in "the country of religious tolerance and harmony. We do not need extreme security when we go out of our house," he said.

The venue was changed for "security reasons" from the northern city of Shkoder, near the border with Montenegro, to Elbasan, much nearer to the capital Tirana.

The decision followed media reports that an alleged terror group of 15 persons, arrested in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, planned an attack during the match.

Israel's win put the national team in third place within its group with nine points in total. Spain will be the next nation to host Israel's national team on March 24.

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