UEFA U-turn Seen as Increasingly Likely

There is an increasingly good chance that Israel will be allowed to host its Euro 2004 qualifying matches, including the game against Cyprus on October 16, at the National Stadium in Ramat Gan.

There is an increasingly good chance that Israel will be allowed to host its Euro 2004 qualifying matches, including the game against Cyprus on October 16, at the National Stadium in Ramat Gan. In the list of matches published yesterday by UEFA, the Cyprus game is slated to be played at Ramat Gan, and the game's European governing body even published the name of the referee who will take charge - Alfredo Trentalange.

The UEFA Executive Committee is due to meet next week in Istanbul for a two-day session to which UEFA President Lennart Johansson also invited Israel Football Association chairman Gavri Levi. According to a UEFA source, the fact that the Israeli issue is not officially on the agenda does not mean that it will not be discussed, since the topic falls under the category of current issues.

The Executive Committee will wrap up its Istanbul meeting with a press conference at which a final decision on Israel is expected to be announced. A senior UEFA official, who spoke to Ha'aretz on Tuesday, gave Israel reason for optimism.

"We can no longer ignore the fact that the situation in Israel now is nothing like it was in March, when we took the decision not to allow games to be played there. To continue ignoring the new reality would be a gross violation of the credo of fair play that UEFA has nurtured so well in recent years."

Formally, the ban will remain in force until a decision is taken to lift it, but this time, Israel has every change of being successful, since Johansson, known as a friend of Israel, is not happy with the current situation. Johansson will meet with top-ranking UEFA officials this week, including a crucial session with UEFA strong-man, Chief Executive Gerhard Aigner.

Aigner's position has also softened toward Israel in recent weeks, after having previously ruled out a return to Ramat Gan until there is a complete cessation of violence in the region. But the relative quiet of recent weeks has started to influence even those who vigorously objected to playing in Israel, while, at the same time, the internal pressure from Israel's friends at UEFA - Germany, the Netherlands and Luxembourg - has been growing more vociferous.

UEFA spokesman Mike Lee said yesterday that the organization was continuing to monitor events in the country very closely and that a decision would be taken in Istanbul. "We have seen some encouraging developments recently," said Lee, "and a certain drop in the level of violence. UEFA would be happy to overturn its decision from March, and I hope that the day is not far away."

The secretary-general of the German soccer federation, Horst Schmidt, yesterday sent a fax to his Israeli counterpart, Gavri Levi, in which he said that the German federation supported Israel's demand to have a ban on hosting international matches overturned.

Schmidt added that Germany's representative in Istanbul would vote in favor of Israel's demand that all of its Euro 2004 qualifying matches be played in Tel Aviv.

The head of the Dutch federation, meanwhile, has also added his name to the list of those supporting Israel's attempts to have the games moved back to Tel Aviv. So far, Levi has mustered support from four representatives at next week's meeting, with Germany and Holland being joined by Luxembourg and Cyprus.

"I'll be flying on Wednesday to Istanbul," said Levi yesterday, "where all the delegates will be staying at the same hotel. I intend to meet them all, including [UEFA President Lennart] Johansson. I will try to convince them to move the games back to Israel, to the Ramat Gan National Stadium at Ramat Gan. I do not know whether the debate will be followed by a vote. I assume that there will be an open and frank exchange of views, with all delegates having their say. I believe that we will be allowed to host games in Israel, but one never knows how things will develop."