UEFA Stands by Decision to Keep Israel Off Limits

Final decision today but Hapoel TA will have to host AC Milan at neutral venue

Despite frantic last-minute representations by a high-level Israeli delegation yesterday, the decision by European soccer's governing body to prevent Hapoel Tel Aviv from hosting AC Milan next Thursday at Bloomfield will remain in effect.

The UEFA decision made on Wednesday followed the terrorist attack on the Sea Food restaurant in Tel Aviv at which two Hapoel players, Yossi Abuksis and Assi Domb, were dining when the gunman struck. Both men escaped unscathed. The European body said that with the terrorists hitting so close to where the team would be staying and playing, it could not allow AC Milan, or any other foreign team in any competition, to travel to Israel in the foreseeable future.

The delegation to Geneva was led by Sports Minister Matan Vilnai, who tried to persuade UEFA chief executive Gerhard Aigner that he would personally vouch for the safety of the team. Vilnai was accompanied by Rafi Agiv of Hapoel Tel Aviv and other officials, but Aigner was unmoved.

"We have listened to the delegation and the minister and we haven't heard anything we haven't heard before," Aigner said. "Nothing has changed and there are no new elements. They (the Israeli authorities) gave us their arguments about why the match should be played in Israel, but we stand by yesterday's decision which was final."

The ruling means the UEFA Cup quarter-final, first-leg match between Hapoel Tel Aviv and AC Milan on March 14 will have to be played at a neutral venue, possibly Cyprus.

Vilnai said: "We appreciate them seeing us, but we're disappointed the decision has not been changed. The government of Israel can guarantee that every team that comes to our country is safe and no player will ever be harmed.

"Mr. Aigner has told us it is not safe to be in Israel so they cannot let AC Milan play there."

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres appealed to Italy earlier yesterday, as both spoke to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is also president of AC Milan.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said that UEFA's decision was wrong and dangerous, saying imposing a ban meant "capitulating to terrorists."