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There was a positive atmosphere among Israel's Under-21 soccer squad as it left Ben-Gurion Airport for the Netherlands on Wednesday morning, where it will continue preparations for the UEFA Under-21 European Championship that begins next week.
The Israelis, placed in Group A along with Belgium, the Netherlands and Portugal, will kick off their campaign against the hosts in Sunday's tournament opener.
It is the first time an Israeli soccer team has reached the finals of a major tournament since the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
Israel advanced after producing two shock results in a playoff against France in October - holding the blues to a 1-1 tie in Caen before winning the return leg 1-0 in Herzliya.
Despite bearing the hopes of a nation on their shoulders, the players appeared relaxed as they posed for photos and spoke to reporters at the airport.
Defender Dekel Keinan, who played for the senior team in Saturday's Euro 2008 qualifier in Macedonia, stressed that Israel's aim was to qualify for the Beijing Olympics by finishing in the top two places in its group.
Looking forward to the team's first match, the Maccabi Haifa player added: "Clearly they [the Netherlands] are the favorites, but against France we were also the underdogs, and we won, so we are feeling optimistic."
Maccabi Tel Aviv's Omer Peretz spoke of the feeling in the camp. "Of course everyone is excited, it's natural. We are going to go into every match aiming to win, and clearly our aim is to advance [to the semifinals]."
Betar Jerusalem's Amit Ben-Shushan has a hamstring injury, but he remained positive. "I did some training on my leg this week. I am taking it slowly and I hope I will be able to play, but I will wait until the doctor makes the decision."
Coach Guy Levy said he had total belief in his team. "Unlike many people in Israel and abroad, I still think we're capable of reaching the semifinals," he said. "We're confident in our ability and I'm not someone who is put off that easily."
While Yuval Shprungin, Keinan and Chelsea teenager Ben Sahar left the senior squad after the Macedonia game, strikers Barak Itzhaki, who scored for Israel in his senior team debut on Saturday, and Toto Tamuz will join the Under 21 squad on Thursday, after the senior team's match against Andorra on Wednesday evening.
Israel will play its first two games - against the Netherlands and against Belgium on Wednesday - at the Abe Lenstra Stadium in Heerenveen before moving to the Euroborg Stadium in nearby Groningen for the final group match against Portugal on June 16.
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