Despite the best efforts of several boycott-pushing pro-Palestinian groups, soccer’s Under-21 European Championship gets under way in Israel on Wednesday, with thousands of fans pouring into the country for one of the most prestigious sporting events ever held here.
The eight-country contest — featuring games in Tel Aviv, Netanya, Petah Tikva, and Jerusalem — includes some of the brightest young stars in European soccer from such powerhouse countries as England, Germany, Spain, and Italy.
Fox Soccer commentator Marc Serber believes this could be just the beginning of Israel playing host to large soccer events. “For me, this is a groundbreaking moment… perhaps the true acceptance outside international matches that Israel is a true and valued member of UEFA (the Union of European Football Associations),” Serber said.
The host nation kicks off against Norway on Wednesday at 6 p.m. in Netanya. Also in Group A are Italy and England. Group B brings together Spain, Holland, Russia and Germany. According to the Israel Football Association, over 150,000 tickets had been sold by early this week for the football fest, which culminates in the final at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium on June 18.
The Israeli government played an active role in funding the tournament, putting an estimated NIS 4.5 million (some $1.2 million) toward the games, with as much as 2 million shekels coming from the Ministry of Culture and Sports, according to a press release from the Prime Minister’s Office.
The 2011 Under-21 European Champions Spain are favorites to win again, but will likely face stiff competition from England (coached by former international Stuart Pearce), Germany and Italy. Israel, which last appeared in the tournament six years ago, was spared qualifying this time as the host, but home advantage would have to pay off unexpectedly well for it to proceed beyond the group stage.
Perhaps the biggest star on show will be England striker Wilfried Zaha. Zaha, 20, spent the past season playing for Crystal Place, but was bought by Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson for an estimated £15 million in the January transfer window and is expected to be a key player in the post-Ferguson era at England’s top club.
Zaha has been recovering from an ankle injury, but will be fit to play in England’s opening game against Italy on Wednesday at Tel Aviv’s Bloomfield Stadium. Along with Zaha, Spain’s attacking midfielder Isco, Italy’s midfielder Marco Verratti and Russia’s attacking midfielder Alan Dzagoev are expected to star for their respective countries.
Israel’s squad features Jewish, Arab and Druze players. One of the rising stars is Taleb Twatiha, 20, a defender from Maccabi Haifa who grew up in the Arab town of Jasser al-Jarka. The players are “good, excited and motivated,” he said in an Israeli promotional video. The team captain, defensive midfielder Nir Biton, 21, from Ashdod, said that “the atmosphere in the squad is amazing.” He said there were no “stars,” but rather a group of friends who wanted to play well together, as a team.
Israel was selected to host the tournament in January 2011 by UEFA’s Executive Committee meeting in Switzerland, beating out bids by Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and England.
Several prominent pro-Palestinian groups, including the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, urged UEFA president Michel Platini to change the location, but Platini was unmoved.
Two weeks ago, pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrated outside UEFA’s offices in London, and several prominent European players — including Chelsea stars Eden Hazard and Demba Ba, and Papiss Cisse of Newcastle — signed a petition opposing the tournament being held in Israel.
Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, a spokesman for Red Card Israeli Racism — a London-based group set up to oppose Israel hosting the games — said, “There is a strong body of opinion that believes allowing Israel to participate in international events of this kind legitimizes and normalizes entrenched discrimination against Palestinians and glosses over the fact of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land.”
She said some of the organizations and individuals backing the protests were “outraged at the obvious injustice of giving Israel a showcase to present itself in a favorable light to the sporting world while suppression of Palestinian rights goes unchecked,” and that “Israel deserves to be boycotted every bit as much as South Africa in the days of Apartheid.” She also vowed that “Red Card campaigners across Europe will use every peaceful means at our disposal to oppose future international events being held in Israel.”
Unfazed, UEFA recently reiterated its support for Israel as host, and for the preparatory work by the Israel Football Association (IFA). “The 2013 UEFA European Under-21 Championship final tournament in Israel is an important bridge between youth and senior football. The experience the players will gain will prove invaluable as they embark on careers in the international game,” it said. “This is the first time since the 2000 UEFA European Under-16 Championship that UEFA has staged a final tournament in Israel, and the thanks go to the IFA and the four host cities for the efforts they have put in to help organize what promises to be a superb competition.”
As for the IFA, its spokesperson Michal Grunwald noted that the Under-21 contest “is the 2nd most important tournament of the national teams in UEFA” after the quadrennial UEFA European Championship, “so for us to be the host of it… shows great honor and respect. We are excited, and focused on the tournament,” she said. “We will show the world that we can host a great event.”
Asked about the calls for nations to stay away from Israel, Grunwald said, “If you’re referring to the protesting and voices to boycott Israel, then we are not dealing with it at all. We are aiming our efforts at the tournament. The stadiums are ready and the hosting will be great, on time, and as planned.”