Int'l Soccer: Israel ready for tournament kick off

Under-21 side faces defending champions and hosts Holland in the European Championship opener.

israel trains 88 (photo credit: )
israel trains 88
(photo credit: )
Eight months of anticipation will come to an end on Sunday night when Israel's Under-21 side faces Holland in the European Championship opener. Ever since the team completed a 2-1 aggregate win over France in October of last year and qualified for the championship for the first time in Israeli soccer history, interest amongst local fans has grown to unprecedented levels. Rarely do Israeli supporters have the chance to follow one of their teams in a major tournament, but for the next seven days, at the very least, Israeli players will be on show in one of the biggest competitions European soccer has to offer. The last time an Israeli side reached such a major event was 31 years ago, when the blue-and-white took part in the 1976 Olympic Games. The long wait will finally come to an end on Sunday when the team plays the hosts and defending champions at the Abe Lenstra Stadium in Heerenveen. "We start every match with the same goal, to claim the victory," coach Guy Levy said on Saturday. "That is also our goal in the match against Holland. I have a rare bunch of players and trust every one of them. "Our heart got us here and our heart will lead us to success." Victory will, however, be difficult to achieve on Sunday against one of the tournament favorites. Just six of the players that won the title for the Dutch in 2006 are part of this year's squad, but nevertheless coach Foppe De Haan is once more at the helm of one of the more formidable sides in the tournament. The biggest name in the Dutch squad is Ajax striker Ryan Babel. The 20-year-old has already made his senior international debut, scoring against Romania in March 2005 to become the Netherlands youngest goal scorer in 68 years. "The tension is rising," De Haan said on Saturday. "Things have been going well, but now it's getting really exciting. It's very nice to play here and it's a big challenge. Now it's up to us." De Haan said he studied Israel closely, claiming the blue-and white "are like a swarm of bees that make it very hard for opponents to develop their game." Holland won the tournament for the first time ever last year, with Italy the most successful nation in the events history, claiming the title on five different occasions. Yugoslavia was the first champion in 1978, with the tournament taking place every other year ever since. This year's event will be the first to be played on an odd year after UEFA chose to move the tournament to prevent it clashing with the World Cup and European Championship. The tournament also offers an added bonus, with four places at the Beijing Olympics going to the four semi-finalists. Israel's preparations for the tournament have been less than ideal, with five of Levy's squad playing for both the senior and Under-21 sides in recent months. Nevertheless, Levy understands that none of that is of any importance now and that the team will have to get the job done in the next seven days if it's to realize its dream of reaching the Olympic Games. "Every one of the teams taking part would like to reach the semifinals, but this is a tournament and we will have to take it one match at a time," Levy said. "We have a full squad of players at the right time and the most important thing is that we prepare in a proper manner for Sunday's match." Israel faces Belgium in its second Group A match on Wednesday and will play Portugal on Saturday in its final game of the group stage. In Group B, England, Italy, Serbia and the Czech Republic will battle for a top two finish and a semifinal berth. Maccabi Haifa reserve goalkeeper Tom Almadon will start in goal for the Israelis, with Maccabi Tel Aviv's Yuval Shpungin, Hapoel Tel Aviv's Shay Maimon, Haifa's Dekel Keinan and Betar Jerusalem's Eliran Danin likely making up the sides back four. Maccabi Tel Aviv's Shiran Yeini and Lior Jan are expected to anchor the midfield, with Betar's Aviram Bruchian playing a more forward role in the center of the field. Omer Peretz and Barak Itzhaki will likely play on the wings, with Chelsea's Ben Sahar starting up front. "We're excited, but we're ready," team captain Keinan said on Saturday. "We've been waiting for this tournament for a long time and at last it has arrived." On TV: Israel vs Holland (live at 7:15 p.m. on Channel 10)