JERUSALEM Israel came in for warm praise from European football's supremo Michel Platini as the Euro Under-21 football championships ended with Spain thrashing Italy 4-2 to retain the title.
"The stadiums were wonderful and well organised, the pitches excellent and the atmosphere in the stadiums was great with many families with young children attending. That is exactly the type of tournament that I like to see," Platini told a news conference.
Spain stood out above all their opponents, winning all their matches without conceding a goal until the final and their flowing style captivated the crowds. They won a fourth title in Jerusalem, one fewer than the record held by Italy.
Israel qualified as hosts and were on paper the weakest team in the event, although they managed to beat England in a meaningless encounter and forced a draw with eventual semi-finalists Norway.
It was a disappointing outing for Germany, Russia and England, who never threatened to advance to the semi-finals, while the Netherlands showed flair but were frail defensively.
The 13-day tournament was the most important international sporting event to be held in the Jewish state since the 1968 Paralympics and was held amid tight security following a politically-charged build-up.
Before the biennial event began, UEFA held firm against calls from pro-Palestinian activists to move it away from Israel as they argued that the Jewish state did not deserve to be rewarded for restricting the movement of Palestinian athletes.
Platini said that because of the popularity of football, it was an obvious vehicle to promote political and other messages but added it was important to keep the two separate. "I would like there to be a world where one can play football peacefully, even though I know the local context ... Often (soccer) is used for political, economic, communication reasons, reasons of image ... It can be taken hostage ... because it attracts a lot of media and journalists," he said.
Israel controls the borders in and out of the Palestinian territories and cites security concerns as the reason for imposing travel restrictions, although it says it has eased the movement of Palestinian athletes.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter said last month he would personally intervene to try to ensure Israel lifts travel restrictions on Palestinian football players and facilitate entry for visitors.
Keeping matches safe, always a worry in Israel which in the past has been prone to attacks by Palestinian militants, is a top priority for security officials.
(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Mark Pangallo)