JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel stages its most important international sporting event in 45 years on Wednesday when the hosts kick off the Euro Under-21 football championship amid tight security following a politically-charged build-up.
European soccer’s governing body UEFA has held firm against calls from pro-Palestinian activists to move the tournament away from Israel, who are the weakest of the eight teams competing, because of restrictions on the movement of its athletes.
Israel start their campaign against Norway, who coach Guy Luzon surprisingly believes are the toughest team in Group A ahead of usual favourites Italy and England.
“I don’t fear any player in any opposing team... we don’t know any of the players in the England, Italy or Norway teams we are concentrating only on our own team,” said Luzon, who will take the helm at Belgium’s Standard Liege next season.
Local pundits had assumed that beating Norway, who ousted France in qualifying, would be Israel’s best chance of picking up three points but Luzon suggested otherwise.
“Norway are no weaker than Italy and England even though they might not have the same reputation, but to my mind Norway will beat both England and Italy,” he added.
Underdogs Israel should be helped by the large home support and hot, humid conditions of about 30 degrees Celsius.
Many of the teams in the June 5-18 tournament will field full internationals, some of whom play for top European clubs. The lesser known players will try to impress coaches and scouts at an event considered a shop window for the future of the game.
The format sees two groups of four teams, with the top two contesting the semi-finals ahead of the final in Jerusalem. Holders Spain, Germany, Russia and Netherlands are in Group B.
Those who have top players on show include Spain, with Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea and Benfica striker Rodrigo, Germany, who have Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Lewis Holtby, and England with Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson.
The tournament is the most important sporting event Israel has hosted since the Paralympic Games in 1968.
Middle-Eastern politics has never been far away during the build-up with pro-Palestinian activists arguing the Jewish state did not deserve to be rewarded for restricting the movement of Palestinian athletes.
However, UEFA insisted it would not take the tournament to another country, while Israeli FA chairman Avi Luzon has promised to work hard to keep football separate from politics.
“We will continue to guard Israeli football and football in general from all political influence,” Luzon said last week at the congress of FIFA, world soccer’s governing body.
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 told delegates at the congress in Mauritius 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 but there are no known threats against the tournament, a police spokesman said.
“Extra police officers and private security firms will secure teams and spectators, all buses will get a police escort to and from the venues. We are not aware of any specific threats against the event,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
Matches will be at four venues, three along the coastal area - Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv, Hamoshava in Petah Tikva and Netanya City Stadium, all with a capacity of under 15,000 - and Jerusalem’s Teddy Kollek Stadium which can seat over 30,000.
Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Ken Ferris