(photo credit: )
Israeli and English soccer fan organizations are assuring England fans they have nothing to worry about if they travel to Tel Aviv for a Euro 2008 soccer qualifier this month.
In August, Israel was banned from hosting international soccer matches because of violence in the region. The country was given clearance to host games again in September, but only in Tel Aviv.
English and Israeli officials told more than 100 fans at a forum Thursday night that they should not be afraid of violence or terrorism when they go to Israel for the March 24 game.
"It is a country that is in the news every day, day in day out, for one reason and one reason alone," event organizer Mark Perryman said.
In 2001, five Chelsea players skipped a UEFA Cup match against Hapoel Tel Aviv, citing safety reasons after then-Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi was assassinated.
"What we wanted to do tonight was make people aware of the risks but not to be so intimidated by those risks or fearful of the culture that people hold back," Perryman said. "They want to engage, and that is what we want to do."
Fans were briefed on mundane issues, such as getting through customs, what is acceptable to wear and where to get a drink, and more serious issues like how to avoid religious conflict, the extensive security checks and racism in soccer.
"It's a great opportunity for the average England fan to learn about Israel and Israeli society," said Dan Berelowitz, a campaign coordinator of Kick Racism out of Israeli Football. "Israel is in the center of the news for a variety of reasons, but it's great that it is in the news for this reason."
The overwhelming theme was that Tel Aviv is one of Israel's most secular cities and the English fans should not be worried.
"If the England fans are well-behaved then there isn't going to be any problems," Berelowitz said.
Haim Perez from Acre was in England with Football4Peace, and he doesn't expect any problems.
"All the time you have the hooligans, the few fans that make the problems, but the Israelis like the English and I don't think they will be a problem," Perez said.
There are plans for English fans to learn about Israel through day trips, a traditional Shabbat meal, a friendly game with local fans and a soccer tournament with Jewish, Arab and English children.
"Make no mistake about it, we are going to see a football match, but most of us are going to go for two, three, four days," Perryman said. "Why not try new beer, eat a new food, see some sights, learn some history? It just adds to the enjoyment."
Fan groups started having pre-away match briefings before Euro 2000, but Perryman said Thursday's was better attended and more involved than usual. Before the forum, fans were provided free Israeli food and beer, and during the meeting there were more fans and panelists than usual.
"Obviously, fans have been to some countries through football or through tourism," Perryman said. "That is what makes Israel both a challenge and exciting. What do we know about this country?"