Israel national team players Ofir Martziano (left), Eran Zahavi (center) and Eitan Tibi (right) couldn’t hide their disappointment.
(photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
Israel’s 2018 World Cup qualifier against Albania this weekend was relocated on Tuesday after four suspects were arrested in connection with planning a terror attack against the blueand- white national team.
According to reports in Albania, four people with links to ISIS were seized following a tip from the Mossad that they were preparing an attack on the Israel squad.
As a result, the Albanian Football Association asked FIFA to move Saturday’s match from the stadium in Shkoder to Elbasan, which is closer to the country’s capital Tirana and is believed to be easier to secure.
Even before Tuesday’s announcement, the Israel squad was set to be escorted to Albania by an additional 15 security personnel. Israel’s players were also told in advance that they wouldn’t be able to return to their teams in Europe directly from Albania as is accustomed following international matches.
They will instead need to travel back to Israel as a group and then fly from Ben-Gurion Airport to their different destinations.
Despite the decision to move the match to what is believed to be a safer venue, Israel’s players are far from relaxed.
“There is a real sense of fear,” said one player. “Right now we are really not focused on the match. Our lives are more important than soccer and I hope that there will be appropriate security. We would have rather played in a neutral country, but perhaps these recent developments will make sure that nothing happens.”
Israel has six points from three matches so far, losing its opener against Italy 3-1 before defeating Macedonia and Liechtenstein 2-1.
Israel’s visit to Albania will likely go a long way to determining which team finishes in third place, assuming powerhouses Italy and Spain claim the top two spots as expected.
Only the winners of each group will qualify automatically for Russia 2018, with the eight best runners-up to advance to home-and-away playoffs.
Albania is tied with Israel on six points, beating Macedonia 2-1 and Liechtenstein 2-0 before losing 2-0 to Spain. Italy and Spain lead the group with seven points each.