JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel will not be allowed to host UEFA Cup second qualifying round first-leg matches which must instead be staged in a neutral country due to the security situation in the region, UEFA said on Monday.
Israel launched an onslaught on Lebanon after Shi’ite guerrilla group Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others in a cross-border raid on July 12. Hizbollah has since fired more than 1,600 rockets into Israel.
Hapoel Tel Aviv are due to play their home tie against NK Domzale of Slovenia on Aug. 8 while Bnei Yehuda Tel Aviv are scheduled to host Bulgaria’s Lokomotiv Sofia on Aug. 10.
Israeli FA chairman Iche Menahem reacted angrily to the news and said the IFA would “respond severely and will not let the decision pass unchallenged”.
Menahem’s deputy, Avi Luzon, later told Israel’s Channel 5 television that frantic phone conversations had taken place with UEFA officials on Monday night to try to change the decision and there was still some hope for the Israeli clubs.
Luzon said UEFA had agreed to receive a request from Hapoel Tel Aviv and Bnei Yehuda to play the first legs of next week’s ties at their opponents’s grounds so there was more time to review the situation. There was no confirmation from UEFA.
“They (UEFA) have given us permission to ask (to switch home and away venues),” Luzon said. “We want to get to a situation where both Hapoel Tel Aviv and Bnei Yehuda are in the same situation as Maccabi Haifa and Beitar Jerusalem,” Luzon said.
UEFA said it would make a decision next Monday on Maccabis Champions League third qualifying round home leg with Liverpool set for Aug. 22 or 23 and Beitar’s UEFA Cup second qualifying round clash with Dinamo Bucharest scheduled for Aug. 24.
Menahem called on UEFA officials to come to Israel to review the situation and see that it is safe to stage matches but Luzon said the governing body’s officials would not be visiting the country.
Last week UEFA’s Emergency Panel asked the IFA to provide added safety assurances for clubs due to visit the country in light of the conflict in Lebanon and the firing of rockets into the north of the country.
At least 598 people have been killed in Lebanon, although the health minister puts the toll at 750 including bodies still buried under rubble. Fifty-one Israelis have been killed.
On Sunday, Israeli Sports Minister Ofir Pines-Paz wrote to UEFA saying the Jewish state “is committed to provide all necessary security to visiting national teams, clubs and officials”.
International soccer returned to Israel in April 2004 after a 25-month ban due to the worsening security situation in the country. Matches can only be played in the Tel Aviv area.
Between March 2002 and April 2004 Israeli clubs and teams were forced to host their opponents at a number of European venues including Cyprus, Turkey, Italy and Bulgaria.
UEFA said on Monday it had asked the IFA to submit back-up plans for when teams involved in European games are required to play matches outside the country.
The IFA was also asked by the governing body to submit written guarantees from any potential host association and the public authorities involved as soon as possible.