Cyprus Considers Ban on Hosting Israeli Soccer Games

Recent events in the Middle East, specifically Monday night's assassination of a leading Hamas activist in Gaza that left at least 14 other people dead, have prompted the Cypriot government to reconsider its decision to allow Israeli teams to play their European matches on the island.

The island's government discussed Wednesday allowing Maccabi Haifa, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Tel Aviv to play its "home" games in the Champions League and UEFA Cup at the same venue where Hapoel Tel Aviv beat AC Milan last season, Nicosia's GSP Stadium.

A UEFA ban on holding international games in Israel because of the volatile security situation – reaffirmed Wednesday - means that the three teams have to find alternative locations to "host" their respective matches. In reaffirming its ban on international matches in Israel, a UEFA spokesman said, "UEFA has sought advice from many quarters before advising the Israel Football Association that its clubs had to move their home matches."

A spokesman for the Cypriot government confirmed that the country was weighing whether to allow Israeli teams to use its facilities. "It is true that sport is above political considerations," said Michaelis Papataro, "but the Cypriot government cannot ignore the escalating violence between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, especially the latest events in Gaza.

"There is an agreement allowing Israeli teams to play here, but this attack forces us to entertain doubts about the agreement. The government will decide today to tomorrow on whether Israeli teams will be allowed to play in Nicosia." Sources on the island also said that security concerns, especially the tight security operation the Cypriot police need to mount, are raising questions about the viability of the deal to host the Israeli teams.

UEFA representatives were surprised to hear about this latest development. A source in Geneva said that should the arrangement with Cyprus fall through, the Israeli clubs would have to find immediate alternatives. The most pressing matter is the location of Maccabi Haifa's Champions League second qualifying round game against Belshina Bobruisk of Belarus on July 31. In last night's second leg against Northern Ireland's Portadown, Belshina won 3-2 to book its place in the next round against the Israeli champion.

Maccabi Haifa chairman Yaakov Shahar said Wednesday that his team would have to wait for a final Cypriot decision, but that "the whole affair is highly unpleasant."

Maccabi Tel Aviv's UEFA Cup qualifying round, second-leg tie against Estonia's Levadia Tallinn on August 29 is also due to take place in Nicosia, while Hapoel Tel Aviv's UEFA Cup qualifying round, first-leg match against Albania's KS Partizani is set for August 15.

Tali Leibovitz, a spokeswoman for Maccabi Tel Aviv, refused to comment on the development, saying that until an official announcement was made, the club would assume the game in Nicosia will go ahead.

A Sports Ministry official told Ha'aretz that Israeli soccer had already been set back by the decision to force teams to go abroad to play their "home" games, adding: "We hope the Cypriots will refrain from mixing sport with politics. We find it hard to believe that the Cypriot government would do such a thing."