Israeli Soccer Team Prepares for Turkey Game Amid Diplomatic Turmoil

Maccabi Tel Aviv players told to stay in hotel grounds ahead of Europa League match against Beşiktaş at İnönü Stadium in Istanbul.

The managers of Hotel Gezi Istanbul, where Maccabi Tel Aviv's fans were supposed to stay, were surprised that the only six Israeli guests to check in Wednesday were journalists.

"They promised us hundreds of fans," a receptionist said. "What happened to everyone? Are they afraid to come to Turkey?"

Maccabi TA players, Istanbul - AFP

The airport police were also surprised at the appearance of only a handful of the 200 people who had bought package deals to Turkey for Maccabi Tel Aviv's Europa League match against Beşiktaş. Some 2,500 policemen, 600 of them from the Istanbul Police special forces, were at the airport, expecting a large rowdy crowd of youngsters. Instead they met a group of wealthy men in suits.

The snipers on the roofs and most of the special forces on hand were sent away in an hour and the police commander deployed the remaining policemen around Hotel Debina, where the team is staying, and in various spots in the European quarter of Taksim Square.

Before Maccabi Tel Aviv's plane landed, police forces guarded all the airport's exits and the airplane's jetway.

"The situation in Istanbul is explosive," Police Sergeant Barche Harder told Haaretz. "One spark can cause a big fire, so we brought unprecedented security."

Some 20 news crews were waiting for the Israeli delegation at the passport counter, expecting at least one of Maccabi's players who are also soldiers to be stopped or detained. All the guards held a list of the six team members who are in the Israel Defense Forces and some carried photographs as well.

The only one who was stopped, but only for a few minutes, was Jack Angelides, representative of the club's Canadian owner Mitch Goldhar. Angelides, a Cypriot national, was asked to show his visa to Turkey.

"We're not afraid of anything," coach Motti Ivanir told every reporter who pushed a microphone into his face. "Maccabi has played here before and nothing happened so we have nothing to fear. We've come to play soccer, not mess with politics," he said.

"Political tension is no big deal for people from Serbia and that region," said Savo Pavicevic, the team's Montenegrin defender.

The police instructed the team to stay within hotel grounds and to leave only on guarded trips to practice and the game itself. Team spokesman Ofer Ronen told the local media "we trust the Turkish police to do its work faithfully."

Sports and Culture Minister Limor Livnat said she had talks with the authorities to beef up the team's security and would be in continuous touch with the private security company guarding the team.