arsenal fans 88.
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English soccer legend and BBC television host Ian Wright received an official invitation to visit Israel from Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog on Tuesday night.
Wright was guest of honor at an Israeli tourism reception held at Arsenal Football Club's Emirates Stadium in north London.
Wright, who was Arsenal's top goal scorer of all time until eclipsed by Thierry Henry last season and was awarded the Member of the British Empire (MBE) by the queen in 2000, said he "could not wait" to visit Israel and pledged to promote the country as a tourist destination.
"When I was asked to get involved [promoting Israeli tourism] I thought it was a great opportunity for me and I'm really pleased to be involved with it," he said.
At the reception, Herzog assured Wright that his stay in Israel "will not be forgotten for years to come and will be special for both you and us."
"I'm really pleased about this as I was going to pay for it myself," Wright replied, to huge laughter. "When you listen to someone like Rio Ferdinand [the Manchester United star] telling you that it's humbling, uplifting and emotional to visit, especially the historical places like the Wailing Wall and the Via Dolorosa, it makes you really want to go."
Israel's cooperation with Arsenal has raised the profile of the country as a destination for British and European tourists, Herzog said.
A two-year deal, which was struck in February between the Tourism Ministry and Arsenal, includes Israel being featured on promotional videos at each game on 450 giant LCD screens and along the stadium's perimeter billboards.
The Tourism Ministry will also have access to the club's official Web site, database and magazine to promote Israel as a holiday destination, as well as the use of the Emirates stadium to hold tourism related events.
"I think we've broken new ground in that it's the first time Israel has done a venture of this kind," said Keith Edelman, managing director of Arsenal.
Herzog commented on the fact that the agreement itself represented a sign of peace as it required cooperation between the stadium, owned by the United Arab Emirates airline, and an Israeli ministry.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, which Herzog introduced as "the most widely read Israeli newspaper in English," Wright said: "I've always wanted to go there. [The formerly English-based Israeli player] Eyal [Berkowitz] always talked about it - the sites, beaches and Israeli women.
Wright also had positive things to say about Israel's soccer playing style.
"Technical ability is excellent. I played with Eyal [Berkowitz] and [current West Ham midfielder Yossi] Benayoun, even [Bolton's defender Tal] Ben Haim, and they are very creative, clever and technical players. I've have found Israeli players to be very skillful."
Looking ahead to Israel's game against England in the Euro 2008 qualifiers next March, he said: "We [England] are going through a sticky period so we have to be careful as Israeli players are very strong and quick."
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