The main topic of conversation at Israel’s training session yesterday was the security concerns that forced the relocation of the national team’s World Cup qualifier against Albania this weekend.
(photo credit: DANNY MAROM)
The Israel national team will travel to Albania on Thursday, with security concerns overshadowing Saturday’s 2018 World Cup qualifier.
The match was moved from the northern city of Shkoder to a venue near the capital Tirana on Tuesday due to security reasons. Israel’s counter-terrorism bureau issued a statement saying that a number of people identified as having links to Islamic State militants had been arrested “in the Balkans” over the past week on the suspicion that they were planning attacks.
It said the Albania-Israel soccer fixture was one of the intended targets of the detained suspects and others connected to them, and advised Israeli fans not to travel to the match, citing a “Level 2...high, concrete threat.”
Albanian media quoted a prosecutor as saying that four suspects were arrested after security agencies checked information forwarded by the Israeli secret service.
In a closed court session, the suspects denied any wrongdoing and said they were being punished only for their belief in Islam, the prosecutor was quoted as saying.
Newspapers reported that the suspects were linked to a group arrested in neighboring Kosovo on Saturday on the suspicion of planning attacks in the Balkans and receiving instructions from militants in Syria.
Despite the high alert, Israel defender Shir Tzedek said the squad remains focused on the match.
“We are not afraid. We are soccer players and we are thinking about the game against Albania,” he insisted on Wednesday. “I’m sure that those responsible for our safety will do what they need to do. It has nothing to do with us and we need to play soccer.”
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 team’s 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.
Israel has six points from three matches so far, losing its opener against Italy 3-1 before defeating Macedonia and Liechtenstein 2-1.
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.