Thousands Welcome Victorious Hapoel Tel Aviv Soccer Team

Some 2,000 Hapoel Tel Aviv fans welcomed the soccer team's players when they landed Friday afternoon at the Ben Gurion airport, after Hapoel became the first Israeli team to reach the UEFA Cup quarterfinals with a stunning 2-1 upset win in Parma Thursday night.

A ceremony was held for the players, attended by Science, Culture and Sport Minister Matan Vilnai. The team's coach Moshe Kashtan thanked the fans that accompanied the team in its overseas games, and called them "the twelfth player".

The Hapoel Tel Aviv management is still deliberating whether to hold the match against Italy's Milan on March 14 at Hapoel's home stadium Bloomfield or at the Ramat Gan stadium, which is bigger and can accommodate some 42,000 spectators.

Most of the players object to holding the game in Ramat Gan for professional reasons. Some of the teams' fans asked Hapoel owner Moshe Teomim to hold the game at Bloomfield stadium even if the ticket price are doubled.

Hapoel will play AC Milan, one of the giants of European club soccer in the next round after they struggled to beat Roda JC Kerkrade of Holland 3-2 on penalties.

Hapoel played the perfect away game, soaking up pressure before hitting their Italian hosts on the break to seal a 2-1 aggregate triumph following last week's goalless draw at Bloomfield.

Great achievement

The scenes on the pitch were once again those of celebrating players clad in the traditional red uniform of Hapoel.

"We made history and we have brought happiness and a little satisfaction the the entire Israeli nation," coach Dror Kashtan said afterward.

"All the players performed to a very high level of discipline and their display was awe-inspiring," the coach continued. "After the first goal, I felt that it was going to be an historic night for us."

He was also full of praise for reserve goalkeeper Nir Rachmin who stood in for the suspended Shavit Elimelech. "All the players gave above and beyond what was expected of them, particularly young Nir Rahamin. I knew exactly what he was capable of and today he justified the faith we put in him," Kashtan said.

Istvan Pisont, who scored the second goal, said: "This is a very special moment for me. I'm very tired and I've suffered many injuries, but I'm pleased we made it to the next stage."

Inspirational midfielder Yossi Abuksis was still in shock after the final whistle. "I think we've done something amazing. We went on and played perfectly and we were better than Parma. We knew exactly what we were doing and what we wanted throughout the match," he said.